Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lost in Translation

I have two funny little stories for you that have happened in the last couple weeks built around the theme of communication difficulties.  So often (pretty much every day) there is some sort of communication breakdown that happens between me and the culture I live in, whether it’s someone from the local phone/internet company calling yet again about a promotion, and me trying to explain I’m not interested, which usually ends with me hanging up on the well-meaning person due to my hopeless lack of understanding, or trying to decipher the concerns of our yard guy (is he telling me there was someone on our driveway that he told to go away, that is afraid there will be someone on our driveway coming up to bother me, or is he talking about dogs-not really sure).  Anyway, talking and understanding is always an adventure here, both from a language and a cultural perspective, and these are a couple instances I had to share because they made me smile.  Here goes…

A couple weeks ago Chris came home from work saying “I have a surprise for you!”  This is always exciting because it often means delicious pineapple from the jungle or maybe other assorted yummy fruits and vegetables.  Before he pulled out the gift he told me the story behind it. 

Chris had told one of the ladies in a village he frequently flies into that he wanted to bring some fresh flowers to his wife, and since fresh flower bouquets are pretty well impossible to come by in Tarakan, where we live, he wondered if she would be willing to cut some for him from the jungle where she lives.  She was happy to help and assured him she would get a bouquet.  When he came back to the village a couple weeks later she made sure to find him and was excited to give him the bouquet she had worked so hard to get.  He was surprised when she handed him these…

My "fresh" bouquet of plastic "crystal" and metal flowers
When Chris pulled them out to show me I had to laugh, somehow the “fresh” part of the request was, as the title of this post indicates, lost in translation!  I was so touched though, that Chris would go through the trouble to try to bring me flowers, and that this women probably really did have to work extremely hard to get (make) this bouquet.  I actually think the flowers are unique and pretty, and I’ll always have them as a remembrance-my one and only “fresh” flower bouquet in Indonesia!

On to story number two, which really should be called “Sarah makes a fool of herself in Indonesia…yet again.”

So, I am working on putting together a retreat for the ladies on our program to take place in September.  It is going to be at the local hotel in Tarakan, so I went there last Friday to reserve the rooms and establish a contact person.  I initially met with one woman who helped me set up the reservations, and she was excited to use her really good English skills to communicate with me, which was great!  Often if Indonesian people are able to converse in English they are happy to have a native English speaker to practice with, especially in Tarakan where native English speakers are pretty sparse.  The fun began when she called another woman from the hotel to help me make detailed arrangements about how to set up the rooms, and this woman didn’t speak much English.  First of all, I hadn’t put any thought into how I wanted the rooms set up, I thought I was just making the reservations and we would be working all the details out later, so I was caught off guard when the woman from the hotel started asking me, in Indonesian, how did I want to rooms set up, what did I need?  At this point I was sitting there with the two women who were helping me and nearby there were another couple of Indonesian workers and customers, all listening (and staring) at the western girl, because that’s how they roll here.  I was fumbling to think what I needed in the rooms and then trying to translate it into Indonesian, and thankfully the woman who spoke English was helping me.  I was listing off the extra plates, cups, coffee mugs, etc. that we would need and then I came to silverware.  Let me pause to say that I frequently get the word for “spoon” and the word for “shoe” mixed up…I’m sure you know where this is headed.  I explained I would need 12 extra shoes and forks in the room where we would be meet.  I didn’t even realize my mistake until I heard a giggle from a girl sitting nearby, and suddenly everyone was laughing, including me.  It was pretty great.  A bit humiliating, but very funny! 

The fun continued when, later that day, I got a call from the woman I set up the reservations with while I was in the parking lot of a grocery store, and I answered it right then (what was I thinking?  It was so loud with traffic and people yelling and construction, how did I think I would possibly hear and understand her?).  She was trying to explain that she got us a cheaper rate on the rooms, but I had to check in with a special process and oh my goodness I could NOT figure out what she was talking about for like 10 minutes!  She was so patient and kept explaining until I finally understood.  All in all it was humbling day, but everything is reserved and ready to go and the good news is everyone gets a pair a shoes in her room to go with the rest of her dinnerware-just kidding!

Thought those stories of communication folly might make you smile!  I’m off to try to exercise, which includes a “Dancing with the Stars Latin Cardio Dance” DVD.  

Apparently more humiliation is in my very near future.


  1. Love these stories! When I lived in France, I had trouble pronouncing the "oo" sound --of which they have many very subtle variations. Because of my accent, whenever I said the colloquial word for sweater-- "pull"--it sounded like the word for chicken--"poule." My friends thought it was hysterical that I wanted to put on a chicken when I got chilly!