January 25, 2020, Montevideo, Uruguay
We had nothing in particular planned for Montevideo, Uruguay this morning, just get off the ship and watch what happens. Suzi asked “what will you do for a blog post.” I said if a story found me, I’d write it, if one didn’t, I had no obligation to blog at every port. A story found me.
I have seen, or rather heard, the future and it is imperfect. A woman approached us at the terminal about a cab tour. I asked if the driver, Edwardo, spoke English. He didn’t but he had an android device that would serve as a translator. I could have said no but my curiosity got the best of me. How would this prototype babel fish actually work?
From the beginning there was a disconnect as the driver, a man with a passionate voice and lots of laughs spoke (this was particularly true when he spoke of the World Cup as we passed a soccer stadium. He said it’s usually packed with only about 3 centimeters of bleacher space per fan). The bored female voice, completely devoid of emotion repeated what he said in English. “Three cen-ti-me-ters.”
Suzi, in the back seat, had to strain to hear so I asked if he could turn up the volume. He didn’t understand so he had me speak into the phone. He didn’t understand the translation so he had me type into the phone, but with my dyslexic spelling the translation was even more incomprehensible to him.
Sometimes the translation came out sounding like one of those coded messages, that legend has it, the BBC send to the resistance in France. “Living inside these modern premises is a castle.” Huh? It sounded strange until Edwardo stopped the car along a line of high-rise condos and pointed. You will see from the pictures below that the machine was right.
Eduardo asked my religion. I didn’t think I could explain Unitarian through a translation machine so I said “Protestant.” It translated as “evangelical.” I said no, and tried to correct the machine. We switched to politics. I saw lots of graffiti reading “Martinez Presidente!!” Edwardo spoke and the machine said “He tried but luck did not find him.” I kind of liked that. Edwardo was pleased that a right-wing candidate had won after 15 years of left-wing rule. I got the feeling that he was more in favor of change than the right wing. “To long with one party we will be like Cuba.” The machine said. He took us past the Catholic cathedral which had graffiti reading “666.” I don’t think Revelation is part of the Catholic Cannon. I did not try to ask about that through the machine.
Eduardo wanted us to see a particular monument to the indigenous people of Uruguay who “were exterminated.” He said that one surviving family was taken to France and displayed in a cage “like animals in a zoo.” “The only country where the entire indigenous population was exterminated.” The machine-like translation did not capture the emotion Eduardo obviously felt.
But the system really broke down was when he was trying to explain another statue. The translation was incomprehensible. I said “nuk kuptoi.” I was speaking in Albanian, my automatic default non-English language but he understood. He tried again, again it was still incomprehensible. He printed the English translation and ran it through the machine back into Spanish. He put slapped his forehead and let out ai “eye, yi, yi, no.” It was incomprehensible to him too. All three of us started to laugh and it was a while before Edwardo could drive again. We had a lot of fun second guessing the machine and then bypassing it with Edwardo’s little English, Suzi’s little Spanish and my Albanian, which helped not at all but contributed to more laughter.
After a couple of hours with Edwardo Suzi and I took off on a walk through the old town and heard carnival drummers in front of a bar, passed a brightly colored pot shop and sat in a square off George Washington street under a tree full of parakeets.