Failure (Almost)

We tend to spend our time doing the things we know we do well—running because we’re good runners, or painting because we’re talented artists. Tell us about a time when you tried something for which you had no talent. How did it go?

I squinted when the bright light pierced my eyes as I talked to the stony-faced manager of the Siberian airline. I was translating as quickly and accurately as I could, while both parties’ faces became steadily redder and their voices louder. The official rounded on me menacingly as I explained that the Oxford Ecology Professor named Jonathan desperately needed his backpack to join our Altai Mountains research expedition. My brain had never been wired to use both English and Russian simultaneously. As I switched from language to language, there were awkward pauses, I couldn’t remember words, and I forgot about grammar. Both the professor and airline official were frustrated by my translation attempts. The backpack wasn’t returned. I never knew that the outdoor expedition would involve translating. The responsibility was thrust upon me the moment I got off the train and met Jonathan. He didn’t speak Russian, and yet he was the trip’s ecology specialist. I was the only person in our group who spoke English, so I became the impromptu translator. My translating abilities were severely impaired, even though I was fluent in both languages. I had no natural talent. I stumbled over words and couldn’t find equivalent phrases, so that the meaning of what I was translating was often misconstrued. I tailed Jonathan the whole trip. I translated everything to my ability’s limit. I directed his paddle-stroke as we swerved around boulders on our “katamaran” (raft). I advised him when at 10,000 feet a lightning-hailstorm hit. When he lectured us about the biodiversity of bog grasses, I did my best to relay the information. Often during these lectures, we stood in tall, scratchy bushes, flies feasted on our bloody scratches, mosquitoes congregated on our exposed skin, and the sun scorched our heads. Every second was agony. I got nervous and anxious when I mistranslated, because I knew I was prolonging everyone’s misery by being so inept at my translating duty. I worked hard to improve. Slowly and painfully I rewired my brain. I spent less time ransacking my vocabulary for words, I sped up significantly, and I rearranged my phrasing to fit grammar conventions. By the trip’s end, I translated daily conversations with ease, and rattled off phrases with enthusiasm, as he chattered exuberantly. The only things I still felt uncomfortable translating were Jonathan’s ecology lectures. I still felt like a fish out of water, and was frustrated that I wasn’t able to convey the full technical meaning and depth of his lectures. I had no natural talent for translating, but by the end of the expedition, when Jonathan was back at the airport, I had greatly improved. When we were at the register, I inquired if Jonathan’s luggage had appeared. The same manager, who had refused to compensate Jonathan, came out smiling and holding the dusty backpack. This time, when Jonathan and the official talked and shook hands, it was with a smile on my face that I translated their many thanks and apologies.

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