Have you ever struggled to understand something, then had a moment when it magically falls into place?
Recently, a couple who needed directions came into the real estate office where I work. They didn’t speak a word of English, only Spanish. Our receptionist, who knows I’ve been trying to teach myself, asked if I could help. *gulp* Learning a few words and phrases in another language hardly prepares you to converse with a native speaker. Even so, I was willing to give it a try.
Once I greeted the couple, I knew I was in over my head. They rattled off three or four sentences and I only understood about two words. Not a great start. They had an address typed on a piece of paper and I understood they needed to go there. I was familiar with the location, a doctor’s office a short distance away, but was unable to relay the directions with my limited Spanish.
Improvising, I pulled up Google translator on the reception computer, typed the directions for Google, then read them back to the couple. Blank stares. Apparently my accent was all wrong.
Next, I copied the Spanish from Google, plopped it into Word and printed it out so they could read it. For some reason that didn’t work either. They pointed to the phone number on the paper they had and mimicked calling. That I understood. I also saw the woman’s name on the paper—Guadalupe.
I led Guadalupe and her husband to a conference room, got them seated, and called the doctor’s office. Meanwhile, our receptionist tried to track down an agent who was fluent in Spanish.
The doctor’s office couldn’t help me—no one there spoke Spanish— but by that time, our receptionist had reached Ricky, our Spanish-speaking agent. I put him on the phone with Guadalupe and she talked to him for a few minutes. Again, I tried to catch a few words, but most of what she said soared over my head. I ended up putting Ricky on speaker, relaying the directions to the doctor’s office in English, which he then translated for Guadalupe.
Afterward, he had me pick up the phone and told me that although he could understand everything the woman said, she spoke a Mexican Spanish with a very thick accent. It was almost like a mountain dialect, and thus understandable I couldn’t decipher what she’d been saying. That made me feel a little better.
After I hung up with Ricky, Guadalupe’s husband stood and began talking, but I couldn’t figure out what he was saying. I had to reply “no entiendo”—“I don’t understand.” I could see he was disappointed which made me feel bad. Then, like magic, a lightbulb pinged on in my head.
“El bano?” (restroom / toilet) I asked.
Smiling, he nodded. “Si.”
We laughed, realizing we had communicated. We understood each other. *fist pump* I was giddy.
Once I knew what he needed, I was able to rattle off my limited Spanish and direct him to the men’s room. When I pointed out the door for the ladies’ restroom to Guadalupe and said “la mujer” she understood me. Another score!
If this seems trivial, remember I spent a good 10-15 minutes with this couple, neither of us understanding the other. Those last few minutes of limited conversation felt like a monumental breakthrough. The elation kept me on a high for the rest of the day.
So what does this have to do with writing?
As authors we try to reach our readers on multiple levels, hoping to engage their emotions. We can’t always be certain we’re expressing ourselves properly, reaching our readers on a visceral level. Sometimes, it may even feel like we’re struggling with another language as we try to build an emotional bond between readers and characters. But when it happens—when we know we’ve nailed it—it’s magic.
Here’s wishing all of you a little magic today.