Tourism and Translation

No soy un guía de turismo, pero interpreto a uno en la televisión.

The sentence above is a word-for-word literal translation of the (tweaked-to-fit-the-context) English expression “I’m not a tour guide, but I play one on TV.” It represents a number of problems I’m tackling at the moment in preparation for my November wedding in Oaxaca.

The first problem is, of course, that I’m not a tour guide. I’ve only been to Oaxaca once, and even then it was only for 24 hours. Yet, I’ll be responsible for crisscrossing the city, shepherding friends and relatives who know no Spanish or haven’t studied it since the Johnson iglesia de santo domingo

So, the research to choose must-see destinations has begun—and Leslie and I are trying to strike a balance between the touristy and the authentic. Oaxaca, like any metropolitan center, has sites that can’t be missed: el zócalo, the square at the city’s center, and Oaxaca’s two grand churches, la Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and el Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán—the site of our wedding. The city is also dotted with open-air markets where one can interact with the locals and perhaps even haggle over some local fruits and indigenous textiles.

We’re also branching out a bit and trying to coax our guests to leave the confines of the city and explore the surrounding area. Just outside Oaxaca are the mountaintop pre-Columbian ruins of Monte Albán and the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, which is renowned for its black pottery.

With the inevitable last-minute scrambling, the time I’ll be able to spend as de facto tour guide will likely be limited, and my family members might have to brave the linguistic wilderness on their own. But Leslie and I have devised a solution that will arm them with the basics of conversational Spanish: a language guide. I’ve appointed myself Webmaster for Bilingual Affairs for our wedding website, and the job description includes authoring a language guide for basic situations like asking directions and purchasing souvenirs.

Obviously it’s important that my family, should they need it, have a linguistic crutch to lean on, but it’s also another way to practice the language I’m committed to mastering. Also, Mexican Spanish is peppered with indigenous and other nonstandard words. For example, plug zócalo into Google Translate and you’ll be told it means “socket.” Odds are the average phrasebook won’t have an entry for tlayuda, a traditional Mexican dish.

That brings me to the final problem: the tendency to think and translate literally. When I was in Mexico last September, Leslie’s uncle suggested that I start my own blog. “Es una buena idea, pero todo el mundo y su madre tiene un blog,” I replied, letting him know it’s a good idea, but that everyone and their mother has a blog. Idioms, by definition, can’t be translated directly, which explains why my reply was met with confused stares. Also, Mexican culture sort of demands that one enter into discussion of mothers delicately.

It was a boneheaded move. My instinct was to try to be conversational, but I was thinking in hispanicized English, which doesn’t really work. Even in my nonidiomatic speech I often find myself trying to translate directly from English to Spanish and I get caught in long-winded, circuitous, or nonsensical sentences. But it’s getting much easier as I immerse myself in the language and learn to recognize and employ a modified syntax.

Of course, there’s still a way to go. And with the wedding less than nine months away, the pressure’s on.

Learn more about Simon Maloy’s adventures in language learning.

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