Lost in Translation

by Gray Cargill on February 14, 2012

Toward the end of 2011, I was reviewing my journals, thinking about the “best and worst” moments of my travels from the year. I ran across this one, which was not the worst, but certainly the most awkward and uncomfortable. This is the first of what I hope will be more travel stories I post here on SoloFriendly. Let me know what you think.

Tile art

Tile art

I exited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and wandered out to the narrow street, looking around. There was a piece of Gaudi-style tiled art hanging over a nearby shop that caught my eye, and I pulled out my camera to take a picture. Just then, a short but brash American woman with flamboyant red hair and lipstick and bright clothing walked up to me, and began talking to me in English as if she knew me. I was a little startled, but listened to what she had to say.

“I can’t believe that woman over there,” she said loudly with a tone of disgust. “She’s just yelling at that poor little girl in front of everyone. Poor thing looks like she’s going to cry. There’s no excuse for that!” I looked in the direction she indicated.

There was a youngish couple standing ten feet away with a little girl of no more than four or five. The mother was bent forward as she yelled at her daughter. Her ponytail twitched like an angry cat’s tail as she jerked her head between explosive phrases in Spanish. The girl looked like she was going to burst into tears any moment. The father was looking around nonchalantly as if he couldn’t hear or see what was going on right in front of him.

The American woman went on. “I want to just go right over there and give her a piece of my mind. But I know I can’t.”

“No,” I agreed, “you really can’t.”

“Still, that’s just shameful to yell at a child like that.”

Part of me was embarrassed to be part of this woman’s loud commentary on a domestic situation that was really none of our business. By now, the young mother had turned her attention away from her daughter and was glowering in our direction. She may have been Spanish, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t understand what the American woman was saying in English and her voice was certainly loud enough for everyone around us to hear her. I cringed at the thought that the woman next to me was perpetuating the “ugly American” stereotype–and that I, by association, was also being lumped into that category. I tried to signal with my body language “I’m not with her.”

But there was another part of me that agreed with the American woman. I felt for the little girl with the sad eyes holding her hands in front of her mouth as if she could hold back her sobs. Could there really be any excuse for a mother to be yelling that angrily at such a small child, let alone in a public place? If there’s anything that triggers my hot button it’s seeing someone abuse anyone who is weaker than they are. As I felt my own sense of injustice rise, I forced myself to rein it in. Don’t jump to conclusions, I told myself.

In the past, I’ve seen parents who were frantically scared yell at their children for doing something that put themselves in harm’s way. Maybe that was the case here. Perhaps the little girl had wandered off and gotten lost for awhile; perhaps she had stepped in front of a car and her mother was trying to make her understand not do it again. With my limited Spanish skills, I had no way of knowing. I didn’t understand the context.

It frustrated me. Should I be outraged? Or should I be understanding? Was this a one-off occurrence, or was the little girl subject to tirades like this all the time? And even if the worst were true, what could I, a tourist to this country, do about it?

The five of us just stood there for the longest time, frozen like a tableau. The angry mother with her arms folded in front of her chest; the nonchalant father whose eyes never met anyone else’s; the outraged American woman with her fists on her hips; the little girl with the quivering lip; and me.

Finally, I broke the moment. I excused myself, turned, and walked away from the scene and down the street. Was I a coward to walk away from the situation? Perhaps. But I just couldn’t bear standing in that space any more, between two women who were equally uncomfortable to be around and a situation I couldn’t change.

Have you ever encountered an uncomfortable situation like this while traveling in a foreign country? What did you do about it?

Gray March 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Oh for sure, Judy. If I saw someone manhandling the kid, that’d be a different story. And I do hope everyone feels that way.

Judy March 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm

If you think that a child is being physically harmed, you have to get involved. I would probably try to get other locals involved. People that know the language and customs. Maybe even the local police. It might be awkward, but you can’t just walk away.

Gray March 12, 2012 at 5:16 am

I agree on all points, Sheri. Thanks for your comment!

Sheri March 12, 2012 at 12:50 am

The only time that I would interrupt a scene like the one you experienced is if I felt that someone was going to get hurt. Especially a child. Then, I think you have to do what you can do. It is very hard when you don’t know the customs or have a language barrier. You have to go with your gut instincts. Otherwise, I remind myself that I am the visitor.

Gray February 16, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Oh, Kate, I hear you. I struggle with that everywhere I go, and here at home, too. What to do about the abject misery you see sitting in the streets in squalor, begging for money–here in the “richest country in the world”. We had a situation this winter where a homeless man died on a cold night, sleeping in the streets. Not because of lack of homeless shelters here, but because of their rules about not allowing alcohol and drugs in them. Many living in the streets don’t take advantage of the help that’s available because they don’t want to live by those rules. But yes, I think we’re all tested for our humanity day in and day out. Some days we pass, and some days we don’t. Thanks for sharing your story.

Kate Convissor February 16, 2012 at 4:37 pm

I’m struggling with the same issues in New York City. I may speak the language and maybe I know the context, but I’ve been flummoxed as to a moral, human, ethical response that I can live with. Fortunately (or not) the universe keeps testing me. Maybe one day I’ll pass.
Here’s the post I did on the quandary: http://www.wanderingnotlost.org/2011/09/how-to-respond-to-the-poor-and-how-not-to/

Gray February 14, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Um….Sounds like there’s a very interesting story behind that, Adam. 🙂
Thanks, Lisa. I just felt so guilty, but also completely helpless.
Lee – Exactly. Even in my own language, I’m not sure how I could have/would have approached this without getting into an altercation. But at least in my language I’d have known the context better.

lee laurino February 14, 2012 at 9:39 am

so true! this happens in our own language…while telling a mother that her 1+ yr old was standing up in the shopping cart she attacked me to mind my own business, while her other child was trying to pull adisply down on her head.

have learned to be blind….

Lisa @chickybus February 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

Excellent story! I’ve been in situations sort of like this and know how awkward and confusing it can be to feel ‘lost in translation’ or caught up in a tricky situation. I totally think you did the right thing. To stay and chat with the American would have led nowhere and it wasn’t appropriate (or possible) to intervene.

Adam Pervez February 14, 2012 at 7:57 am

Great questions! I think it’s often best to remain a spectator.

But the title caught my eye because yesterday I had a big lost in translation moment that had me grabbing parts of my body and making noises to get my point across. 🙂

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