Little Interpreters

When a family migrates, the members who pick up the local lingo first and best are generally the children, and they soon become little interpreters. My wife wrote letters to the Swedish authorities for her Chinese dad from the time she was 11. And when time rolled around for the biannual talk with the teachers about each pupil’s scholastic progress, she was accompanied by her sister (1½ years older). I hear that such a setup, with all that it means for power relations in the family, can be a big problem for men from more strongly patriarchal traditions.

We’re planning Juniorette’s seventh birthday party, and we’re a little late. So instead of sending cards I called every family on the guest list. When I called little Juanita’s home, she picked up the phone herself. I identified myself as Juniorette’s dad and asked to talk to mom or dad. Juanita replied in a very civil tone and with perfect pronunciation that Mother doesn’t like to talk to telephone salesmen. After a little extra explanation, comprehension dawned and Juanita seamlessly switched into interpreter mode. I heard the mother in the background speaking Spanish (which I understand reasonably well if spoken slowly but cannot speak myself), and then I got a flawless Swedish interpretation from Juanita. At one point I got to talk a little to the mother myself, but it wasn’t any use.

Anyway, I think I got the message across. But just to make sure, I’ve written an invitation in English, run it through Google Translate to make some kind of Spanish of it, and printed it out. I’m cycling over to put it in their mail box.

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10 thoughts on “Little Interpreters

  1. When my daughter began primary school at age 5, I had the wonderful idea that it was a good opportunity for us to learn to read and write Chinese together.

    Within 3 months, she was so far ahead of me that I was hopelessly left behind. I didn’t give up, but I realized that I had to leave her to surge ahead on her own, and just progress at my own pace, because there was no way that I could possibly keep up with her. Now, she has mother-tongue fluency in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, and reads and writes equally well in English and Chinese in both traditional and simplified characters. And language and literature are not her interests, she is devoted to studying science. Me, well, erm…I’m still in primary school, pretty much.

    In risk management, for example in public education about earthquake risk, there is a well recognized 3 cornered principle: (1)Adults ignore experts. (2)Children listen to experts. (3)Adults listen to children. So teach the children, and when they need to, the children communicate to the adults what they should do. A classic example was the 10 year old English girl on the beach in Phuket when the 2004 tsunami occurred – she was later honoured by the United Nations for saving the lives of more than 100 people.

    Kids are brilliant. Adults should listen to them, and let them do what they do far better than adults. Any patriarch who does not recognise and utilise the natural ability of children as information gatherers and communicators is a twit.


  2. I wrote the original in simple English, and using my knowledge of French I can’t see any expletives or speculations about the virtue of the addressee’s mother in the result.


  3. I have been running Lars L’s Swedish through Google Translate so I can understand the captions to his great photos, and it comes out well enough for me to easily understand what he is saying. I can’t imagine Martin’s children’s party invitation is more complex – I’m confident it won’t contain any joking references to World War II amphetamine-laced chocolate bars, for example.

    Which I thought was actually a pretty good joke, Lars, if I may say so.


  4. I have the impression that not all Google Translate combinations of languages are equally good. Generally, the software does a better job of bigger languages. I figured that English –> Spanish would produce a better result since that is a translation pathway that is interesting to hundreds of millions of people.


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