Lost in Translation

I couldn’t remember the number six. I froze, my body edging toward panic mode. The lady across the counter waited for me impatiently to finish saying my phone number. Her look conveyed a mixture of pity and frustration: who moves to Spain without being able to even say their phone number in Spanish? I resorted to a technique from my Kindergarten class and began from the beginning. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis.


The lady nodded and asked me another question. I didn’t even pretend to understand this one. Paralysis wouldn’t let go of my tongue. She looked a little exasperated, but pointed me toward the cash register and handed me my newly minted transportation card. I quickly paid and almost ran out of the store.

I breathed a sigh of relief. I had managed to get my card, giving me unlimited public transportation at the magical price of 20 euros a month. Mission accomplished.

Nothing in Spain is in English. Need a social security number to legally work? The Spanish government provides versions of the forms in Basque, Gallego, Valencian, and Catalan. But not in English or French or German. And when you arrive in person to get your number with a hundred other people hoping to be the lucky few before the office closes at 2 pm, be prepared to explain what you need in passable Spanish.

I’ve never moved on my own to a country where I don’t speak the language. Sure, I moved to Tokyo without speaking Japanese, but I was twelve and insulated by an American expat bubble. Plus, my parents were there to solve my language struggles.

Since arriving in Spain, I’ve developed a deeper understanding for those new to a foreign country. When I read about the refugee crisis, I want to know whether the German officials can communicate with the new arrivals in their native language. Are they given language classes? Do they find translators to guide them through the muddled bureaucracy?

I mentioned this to my dad the other day. “Now imagine having to figure that all out with two little kids counting on you,” he responded, referring to our move to France when I was eight.

“I had no idea what the teacher was saying about uniforms, so I bought your brother the wrong color tablier,” he said, alluding to my brother’s bright orange apron worn for a few days until my dad found the proper forest green color. But by that time the playground bullies had already found their target: the little American boy with the wrong color apron that couldn’t understand their taunts, only their laughs and shoves.

But I’m not five, and I have yet to be bullied for my clothing. Instead, my failure to understand the lady at the counter can mean denial of my work application or the misfiling of my name, address, or nationality in a stack of Spanish bureaucratic files. To date, paperwork for working and living in Spain totals five separate afternoons sitting in line at various state buildings. And I have not had any more problems with my phone number.


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