If we natively speak English (or German, or Finish, or whatever) and our brothers and sisters natively speak Spanish, and if our only words in common are taco and sombrero, then we have an obvious communication challenge with the language itself. Hence the occasional or persistent need for an English-Spanish translator. Yet no matter how fluent one might be in the English and Spanish languages, without cultural context, it is almost impossible to translate effectively.
At this point, I want to give a shout out to all of the really great translators who have gone over and above expectation, digging into history and context in order to be able to translate documents and conversations for folks in sistering relationships. The focus of this blog post is not primarily directed toward translators, but to the folks speaking and writing English words which need to be translated. If we are in relationships as sister churches or companions in any sense across language and culture, it is our responsibility to learn some history and to build personal and collective knowledge of culture. We should not expect to offload that responsibility onto our translators.
I do a lot of translating. This was not always the case. I went to El Salvador without any study of Spanish other than a couple of songs which my young son taught me from his first grade repertoire. As visits became more frequent, it was sink or swim for me, and gracious Salvadorans patiently taught me their language while we muddled our way through meetings, told each other stories and navigated every day life together. I am still learning!
Communication: The recent and ongoing intercultural training events which I am helping to put together in El Salvador focus a significant amount of time on the theme of communication. Some of the wisdom gleaned during those workshops along with my translating experiences are provoking me to start a new intermittent blog series. Hence: Tips from the Translator.
- Many sistering relationships include letter-writing between Salvadoran students and North American friends and sponsors. Many US letters written during the months of May through August ask the Salvadoran kids, "What are you doing for summer vacation?" While it is true that Salvadorans have vacation during the week containing August 6th in honor of Jesus Savior of the World, these months are school months for Salvadoran children. In addition, El Salvador has two seasons: Wet Season (called winter) from May through October and Dry Season (called summer) from November through April. Thus, without context, a question like "What are you doing for summer vacation?" can be very confusing for Salvadorans. Salvadoran school vacations are from mid-November through December. (University students have a slightly different schedule, running trimesters and including vacation in July and later in December).
- In general, Salvadoran society is a little more formal than in the US. Children are taught from a young age to write letters with a formal introduction. Usually, it is considered polite to begin with something like "I hope this letter finds you well, surrounded by your family and friends." If you are in a church setting, it is customary to begin and certainly to end by giving blessings and offering prayers for one another. In the US, we are typically more direct get right to the point of the letter or a list of questions. To many Salvadorans who do not have much exposure to US culture, this seems rude. An exception to this might be in an email. If you need to make clear communication and receive a response in a short time, a quick greeting followed by bullet points is definitely OK.
- Speaking of time...time in El Salvador is not necessarily linear. Stories circle around; past mixes with present. Urgency to be on time is not as strong (partly because it is nearly impossible to get anywhere via bus through traffic in a timely fashion). In El Salvador it is common to hear the phrase hoy algún día. Literally translated this means "today some day." Depending on the context, it is used as "one day" (in the past, but without an exact date), or some day (in the future). Meetings begin on time once everyone has arrived. When we write and speak back and forth regarding time, it is important to verify exact dates and times if being on time is critical (such as for a visit to the US embassy or a video-call together) and to be patient with one another when our cultural understandings of time clash.
- When we use words such as "maybe" or "probably" in English, we generally understand these words to contain elements of uncertainty or indications that we are not making a firm commitment. When literally translated, these words to a Salvadoran indicate a strong "yes" or "likely unless some huge act of God prevents it." So, if a Salvadoran asks you, "Will you come visit in September?" and you answer "probably," the Salvadoran hears you saying "yes."
Hopefully these (and future) tips will help all of us, along with our translators, to improve communication across language, culture and distance.