The Butterfly Effect – Part One

Reposted from March, 2009

I cut my finger attempting to change a watch battery prior to flying from Asheville to Beijing a couple of weeks ago. Some may wonder how such a thing is possible. Yet among the jittery inhabitants of Planet Caffeine (PC) – where coffee is synonymous with oxygen – each of us can completely relate to the inherent dangers we face while performing simple household tasks. In this particular case, the injury was a routine one and therefore only partly life-threatening, and I tried to put a brave face on things by only whining for an hour or two and failing to put away any of the wrappers from the dozens of Band-Aids I diligently (another synonym: for “haphazardly” on PC) applied.

Apart from doing ourselves fairly frequent harm, we find others willing to contribute, too. We tend to complain and people tend to hit us. If you can imagine the potential irritation endured by the roommate of Jar Jar Binks during his “addicted to Pixie Stix” phase, you can sympathize with those who might suddenly make the quite literal leap from friend to foe. With that risk remaining but my wound bound, I headed with my wife to the airport confident that the incident would soon be forgotten – replaced soon enough by another distracting calamity. This is not foreshadowing. This is experience talking – of course, it’s talking very quickly thanks to an added shot of espresso. And that’s the real point of this posting… how time shifts even in communications as the world gets smaller and smaller. Or maybe other themes will emerge and displace that one. Like there’s a plan for the Universe or for blogs.

Anyway, I have had a number of universal truths made clear to me as I’ve traveled. Some are rooted in history, others tied to peculiar moments of a particular time. For example, I’m sure ancient Sumerian airline ticket agents would not recoil in horror at the sight of a spot of blood. (Wikipedia entry on Sumerians: “Tears, lament, anguish, and depression are within me. Suffering overwhelms me. Evil fate holds me and carries off my life. Malignant sickness bathes me.”) Sadly, though (or, perhaps more generally happily except for this specific context) times have changed and I am a Pariah for the spot on the bandage on my finger. One truth that hasn’t changed one iota in eons: you’ll know when you have become a Pariah, even if you don’t fully understand the term itself and won’t do research. Advice to travelers – keep all your blood on the inside, please. It’s the civil thing to do.

Americans are often accused of cultural insensitivity. At least I’ve heard this (of other Americans, not me) from all my friends overseas. We apparently export the worst of our habits – like fast food – as well as routinely under-appreciate the unique aspects – art, architecture, and haggis – of countries we visit. But, most significantly, we do not even understand English spoken by English people, much less French or Italian or German or other languages spoken in countries like Luxemburg (the native language which I will not hazard to name, thereby sparing myself embarrassment… oh, wait. Too late).

Our expectation as visitors to anywhere is that a sizable local element will have undertaken the study of English whilst we remain oblivious to our role as global citizens and study nothing more taxing than an onscreen TV guide. And, even as we begin a new century of stupifyingly simple-minded provincialism (again, these terms are collected as comments from foreigners) Americans presume that the influence of technology will further diminish the need to actually study another language. And, technology answers that presumption in a number of ways which I will cover over a few postings.

Today’s translation technology is the handheld Lingo 40 and the test environment is Asia Pacific. What an average end-user expects: I type in a phrase – either in English or another language – and can either listen to the translation via earpiece and then repeat it aloud or have the unit speak directly on my behalf to someone else. In theory, this is very valuable. I have, in the past, used a simple ‘Point It’ passport-sized photo album dedicated to disambiguation via visual elements (see Point It on whereas once I might have pantomimed. How many times have we all taken off a shirt in a hotel lobby, mimed spraying starch on the collar, and then spread it over an imaginary surface and ironed it? Now, I show the front desk clerk a picture of an iron and ironing board and voila… in mere hours I am waiting in my room for one that never gets sent!

There are eight simple rules to remember when traveling overseas:

  1. A translation device should be replaced as quickly as possible by a local person willing and able to communicate your wishes more effectively. Hotel concierges, business associates, consular employees, and sympathetic prison guards are among those representing likely resources.
  2. Translating even “simplified Chinese” phrases can be troublesome, given there are 7,000 individual characters for “dangerous things” alone (this may qualify as exaggeration) that are virtually indistinguishable to bleary-eyed tourists. Granted, I might have been able to avoid future gastric distress had I been able to execute entry of characters more successfully as I contemplated a food vendor’s sign on a side street.
    It turns out that “不正派的手人的被不烧的贝站立” can be loosely translated to mean “Unclean Hands Man’s Uncooked Shellfish Stand” which generally one would be wise to avoid.
  3. Much as smokers used to light up between appetizers and entrees because it appeared to hasten delivery of the next phase of their meals, so too is it true that I’d get into any random cab and then begin entering the address of the next location only to have the exasperated driver ask “where to, Bub?” in decent English. This was found to have been the case more than four times during my travels, thus qualifying as a Universal Truth in my research. Fact-based research, by the way, is less of an imperative when jet-lagged. Universal Truths are 99% more likely to get qualified as such under duress.
  4. The amount of time it takes to write appropriate phrases for translation is directly proportional to the pressure you’re under to make your meaning clear. Thus, at a routine traffic stop of your rented motorcycle in Bangkok, factor in some “adrenaline time” to communicate effectively with the police officers. There can be a “long tail effect” to any early failures to establish understanding.
  5. Do not clear a phrase from the screen until it has been clearly heard and understood by its recipient. Learning to repeat a phrase via a single button versus re-entering it should have been identified as a crucial item in the product quick start guide. As should be a willingness to ignore the extreme irritation of passersby and onlookers when you’ve got the volume turned all the way up to 11 in a temple and need to know what the policy is for exposed sockless ankle skin. Another crucial item should be “never try to translate certain phrases aloud in public places.”
  6. Invariably, those to whom you’ll play your phrases will want to use the device to respond. This requires fumbling through sets of keyboard overlays and lots and lots of pantomime that will not deliver any understanding. If you cannot master the use of the device, the small child who has worked his way to the front of the crowd can. Later, of course. In the privacy of his lair. Drat.
  7. Learning the basics of polite social interactions – whether ‘Hello’ or ‘Thanks’ or ‘I love you’ or ‘That’s not what I meant to say’ or ‘How was I supposed to know the gun was loaded!’ or ‘What do you mean it’s a sacred animal/place/deity/candle/towel?’ – from your new portable translation device can take some time. Plan to spend at least 15 minutes per language and try to have some scenarios in mind for the phrases you’re learning. Most important: expect to have an accent that sounds somewhat ‘tinny’ to any listener.  One phrase worth learning is “Danger, Will Robinson.”
  8. Lastly, if you have cut your finger changing a watch battery and it continues to bleed across several continents, it’s wise to “think like a listener”: The man behind the counter in the pharmacy in Beijing or a policeman or even a maid will know what a rubber glove is… but ask for a butterfly Band-Aid and you’ll get nothing. Well, at least nothing my machine could understand. That would be the upgraded model, I guess. The one that would record his response and translate to English: “Are you crazy? Are you saying a butterfly sliced open your finger? Are you saying you are trying to bandage a butterfly? Do you even know what you’re saying? Get out of my store…”

My next post will cover the evolution of machine translation… this|close to perfection. If, by perfection, we mean we’re willing to cut it a lot of slack.

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