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A universal translator is a device that allows instant translation of any language. It is usually found in science fiction movies and the languages translated are usually alien ones. One example is the universal translator used by Uhura in Star Trek in 1966. Another example is an actual robot that can translate, R2-D2 himself, in Star Wars in 1977. I remember as a kid thinking that the universal translator was a cool device and I wished it was real. Remember, I learned English at the lovely age of 5. But of course that idea seemed as farfetched as Scotty beaming us down to another planet.
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However, unlike the ability to beam, some science fiction ideas have come to fruition in the very recent past. Now, most people communicate with each other through a Bluetooth. A device very similar to the coms used on Star Trek. And my personal favorite scifi device – the language translator app was created. iPhones have one. Google has one. The amount of discourse this app has given me is unmeasurable and priceless.
I remember when I first moved to Mexico, my landlord spoke English. However, his aunt, the property manager did not. And she was the person I spoke to the most about water, the air conditioner and whatever other issues came up with my apartment. If it wasn’t for Google translate – I am sure I would have spent a good deal of time beating my head against the wall. Of course, the more Spanish I learned the less we had to rely on the translator app. But, in those early days, it created sense out of confusion. It also formed a bond between us as we sat next to each other on the computer “type talking”. To this day, we are still friendly even though I moved on to other apartments.
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Google translate also came in handy at my job. By the time I started working at the hotel, I was fluent enough to attend meetings in Spanish and reply in simple sentences. However, most of the employees spoke English. The reason the translate app was so important was because the hotel, really the entire Riviera Maya, had started to receive many more tourists from Russia. The Russian tourists usually did not speak either English or Spanish. And even though both Russian and Croatian are slavic languages – one in 20 words might be similar.
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Therefore, the translate app was necessary for all of us to speak to the Russian tourists. I clearly remember one lovely family – a husband, wife and their 7 year old son. She was sent to me because everyone else she talked to could not seem to understand her request to change rooms. I sat down with her and put the computer between us. At first, she seemed surprised. But when she saw what I was doing – she started typing a novel. It turned out she just wanted a room on a higher floor because she wanted to keep the balcony door open. And since there were animals on the property, iguanas and such, she was afraid to leave the door open on the first floor. Once I explained this to reception, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and changed their room.
During the translation process, I asked her many questions to discern what she needed. But what Google translate also allowed me to do was relate with the guest as well. During our discourse, I also typed in, “I like your hat.” We had both been so serious during the entire exchange – it’s amazing how exhausting explaining yourself can be with a language barrier. However, she immediately broke into a smile upon reading my comment. It would have been much harder to reach across the divide without the translator.
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The guest came to see me one more time because her son was sick. They had purchased medicine but she wasn’t sure if she was reading the directions correctly. Now mind you, I had to translate the Spanish into English just to be sure that I understood exactly and then into Russian. Once I figured out that she was supposed to be giving him 2 teaspoons twice a day – I relayed the message to her. She looked at me with a strange look and asked in Russian, “What happens if I have given him that amount but 4 times a day – an overdose?” I explained to her that her son might have some nausea and possible diarrhea, but he would be fine. She looked extremely relieved and touched my hand and thanked me.
I know the anguish of being in a foreign country and being sick. Even if you understand the language, the surroundings are not familiar. You are out of your comfort zone. To be understood is paramount in such situations. I am grateful that I was able to help the family get a more comfortable room and help them with the medicine dosage. They were understood and their needs were met. It also gave them comfort. But the translator app also allowed us to get to know each other. And that is what I like the most. So in the future, there will be far less, “No comprendo“, and far more, “Si, si, comprendo“.