Lost in translation

Though I’ve spent my life in Los Angeles, I opted to study French in high school and college, despite my parents’ pleas that I take Spanish instead. When I decided to study medicine, I stayed in the Los Angeles area, attending the University of Southern California. It was at that point I realized that forgoing Spanish wasn’t such a bright idea.

It was around 1994. Eighty percent of patients in hospitals affiliated with USC spoke Spanish as their primary language. I was determined to learn a single Spanish phrase every day, figuring that after a year or two I would be reasonably proficient in communicating with my patients. I asked our Spanish-speaking staff to help me, and they did: they taught me phrases such as “How are you,” “How do you feel” and “Do you have any pain”.

But they didn’t necessarily teach me the finer points of the language, including the accent called a tilde. This day, I was learning the phrase “How old are you,” which is translated as “¿Cuántos años tienes?” It literally means “How many years do you have?” A nurse spelled it out for me, and I wrote it down on a note card exactly how I heard her pronounce it.

All day long, I was asking my patients this question and they’d respond. If I’d been paying closer attention, though, I might have noticed some of them giving me a few confused looks before they answered.

Then I got to my last patient for the day, a young man with a traumatic ocular injury. I asked him the same question, and at first he looked embarrassed. I asked him again, and then he responded “solo uno” — “only one” — and started laughing.

This young man also spoke English, and he explained what my other patients had been too polite to tell me. The problem was that I didn’t know the difference between “n” and “ñ”, with the latter pronounced like the “ny” sound in “canyon.” And then it made sense: I had written the phrase down as “¿Cuántos anos tienes?” but while “año” means year, “ano,” sans tilde, means anus. I had been asking my patients how many private orifices they had, and not how old they were!

Needless to say, I was much more careful with my Spanish lessons after that.

Today, I know thousands of words and phrases in Spanish, and actually struggle to recall my French, as a trip to France proved last year. Though I can still read it, I cannot speak it: I find speaking Spanish comes much more naturally to me.

And as for my two children, I wouldn’t let them repeat my mistake — I made sure they studied Spanish, and now both are fluent in it. OM

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