Lost in translation


I recently saw an old friend of mine and he told me a story. After repeating this story to pretty much everyone I bumped into over the next couple of days, I asked him if I could turn it into a column. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

My friend – we’ll call him Sam – decided to start a business a couple of years ago, and so he remodeled a historic building in the Roanoke area. It’s a beautiful building today, but it took a whole lot of work to get there.

Sam said that he hired a pretty expensive contractor to do the remodel, and the contractor sent two gentlemen over to get the job done. These gentlemen were Mexican and only knew a few words of English between them.

Now stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but they were also the two hardest working people Sam had ever met in his life. They worked tirelessly and without complaint, and their work was of excellent quality.

One of their bigger jobs was chipping the plaster off of the original bricks in the cavernous interior of the building, and I actually got to see them at work. A couple of years ago, I went to visit Sam while the building was still under construction, and I saw the two men hammering away at the old plaster in perfect rhythm, just as regular as a metronome.

Over time, Sam said, he grew pretty attached to the two guys. They were polite, they were hard workers, and they always showed up on time. In fact, Sam said, he began to resent the fact that he was paying a fortune to a contractor who had apparently outsourced almost all of the labor to these two guys. He would have preferred to pay them directly, especially since the contractor was probably paying them a pittance.

Every Friday, Sam said, he would give each of the guys a $20, just a little tip to let them know they were appreciated. But as the job approached completion, Sam wanted to do something special to show them that their hard work meant a lot to him.

The problem, of course, was that Sam doesn’t know Spanish. However, he found a work-around.

On the workers’ last day, Sam downloaded a Spanish translation app onto his phone. It was pretty simple: you just opened the app, said something in English, pressed the “translate” button, and the app read back your quote in Spanish.

Of course, Sam wanted to make sure the app worked before he tested it in the field. He sat in his truck with his phone in his hand, trying to think of something to say. It needed to be a sentence that he actually knew how to say in Spanish so he could make sure the app worked properly.

“I want tacos and burritos,” Sam said, then pushed the translate button.

Yo quiero tacos y burritos,” the app said aloud.

The experiment was a success! Sam got out of his truck and walked into the building. Inside, the two Mexican gentlemen were hammering away at the last scraps of plaster on the walls.

Sam got their attention and they stopped hammering. As they stood before him, he reached into his pocket and removed two fifty dollar bills. He opened the app on his phone and began to speak:

“I just want you guys to know how much I appreciate all your hard work,” Sam said. “You’re like family, and I’ll be sorry to see you go. It isn’t much, but I want to give you both a little bonus, just so you’ll know much all your hard work and professionalism has meant to me.”

Sam tapped the translate button.

Yo quiero tacos y burritos,” the app said.

A brief silence hung in the air.

“Oh no,” Sam said. “No, wait, no no no—“

The two Mexican gentlemen briefly glanced at each other, and then silently turned around and resumed their hammering.


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