Cuba Bright and Dark

The reactions I got when I told people that I was going to Cuba came in three varieties: “I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba!” “You’ll love it; the people are so warm; there’s music everywhere,” and “Why are you supporting a dictatorship?” I, too, have always wanted to go to Cuba, which is why I leapt at the chance to attend the International Federation of Translators conference in May 2022 with a group of three  other translators and one interpreter. Facets of my experience mirrored all three types of reactions.

As we drove the nearly empty streets from the airport into downtown Havana,  I was giddy looking out the window at palm trees, the strange surroundings, and the possibilities awaiting us. I chuckled at the sight of the occasional fifties-era Chevrolet. They really do have them! I thought.

We spent our first day of the trip in Havana, visiting the historic plazas, Plaza Vieja and Plaza de Armas, and listening to our guide recount the country’s long history of fighting off control by other nations. We got a sense of the Cubans’ pride in their struggles, in their ability to finally be able to rule themselves, and how a home-grown ruler who created a Cuban brand of Communism could be appealing.

We were having our own struggles with the lack of bottled water. Unable to drink the local water, Americans must drink the bottled form, but an unexplained shortage at Cuba’s only water-bottling plant was making us very thirsty. Luckily, we passed by a woman selling water from a little cart in the street. We drank gratefully, as yet another street musician struck up the chords to “Guantanamera,” the immediate musical response to spotting an American.

The journey up till arrival had been wearying. In addition to all the usual preparations to undertake before leaving on a trip, Cuba posed unique  requirements. We needed vaccinations against all the diseases that threatened: dengue fever, hepatitis, yellow fever, and more. Stories about the deadly mosquitos on the island are so prevalent that I scarcely dared to pack shorts. We had to carry with us all the cash we would need for the entire trip, since the country does not accept US credit cards. But what form of cash? Cuba accepts euros, US dollars, Canadian dollars, Cuban pesos (unavailable in the US), and prepaid debit cards called MLCs. We also had to obtain a Cuban tourist card and special medical insurance (to prevent medical tourism travel).

Selecting  “support for the Cuban people” as our official reason for being in Cuba to satisfy the US government requirement meant that our trip included some stops with various craftspeople. Before reaching the conference venue, we dropped in on two local artists. The first was photographer Alfredo Sarabia, who worked in his musty basement studio recreating images of his sons with the family VW bug, exactly as his father had done with him as a child, with exactly the same car. He showed us a series of photos of the shoreline, that represented the division between those who left the island, and those who stayed behind.

Our next visit was to the museum-like home of two artists who made mobiles, great white sculptures of cats and other objects, and leather items. We were impressed by how warmly they welcomed us into their art-strewn home, serving us coffee among the varied paintings and sculptures.

[Photographer Erik Jacobson, not Alfredo Sarabia]

The visit that truly stood out for me was a trip to a vast organic farm, Finca Coincidencia, whose grounds blended man-made art sculptures with the natural art of rare trees, mango groves, and peacocks, and even contained a pottery studio. Our gentle hostess served us an herbal tea from a stone altar as we sat in an outdoor café composed of stones for seats and tree branches for a rooftop. Later,  we were offered a memorable lunch from the farm’s bounty of foods like papayas, rice, sweet potatoes, and the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. While the rest of the island can’t obtain milk for love or money, not even milk powder, there on the farm, cows provided abundant, fresh milk.

The next few days were spent in Varadero at the Hotel El Patriarca, an imposing salute to luxury. The vast lobby boasted marble floors, sky-high chandeliers, and air-conditioned splendor, not to mention a pool, several restaurants, and an in-house doctor. I was grateful for the 1.5-liter bottle of water placed in my room every morning and the huge all-you-can-eat buffet every day, along with the king-size bed and the pristine beach a short walk away. Yet that clean beach with its recliners, bamboo awnings, and morning aerobics lessons also contained armies of destitute Cubans ceaselessly walking up and down the shore, hoping to sell large starfish and crocheted tops to the wealthy tourists.

Our driver brought us each day to the conference venue, the Hotel Melía. If the Patriarca was luxurious, the Hotel Melía was opulence itself. Think gold-banded onyx columns, meditation pools, and swaying palms. In Cárdenas, the nearby town where most of the hotel workers lived, decrepit buildings covered in soot lined the cracked and barren streets. We walked the length of the main street to the sea, to see the monument to the Cuban flag, a small piece of fabric waving disconsolately at the end of a very long pole.

After four days lounging in luxury, the interpreter on the tour and I decided to head back to Havana to experience the real Cuba. We were driven to our accommodations in a neighborhood that can only be described as a slum. When we entered our B&B, we discovered an open, artsy apartment with rooms opening off a verdant tiled courtyard.

Back in Havana, my friend went to explore a synagogue while I trudged through the ravaged streets of Old Havana, dodging people asking for clothing and money nearly every few yards. I found the beautiful Art Deco façade of the Moderna Poesia bookstore, filthy and worn with neglect. I saw a couple in rags sleeping in the alcove of a store, even though our driver had told us that in Cuba, there are no homeless people. I entered a closet-sized souvenir shop where the owner told me that the doll I picked out cost “Five.” “Five what?” I asked. In a place where currencies come and go and exchange rates change with the wind, it didn’t matter.

By the end of the week, I was disheartened by the misery. It is too hard to live in Havana. The island’s contradictions are confusing. The people were helpful, at pains to tell us that they liked Americans. One woman said “I love you” to me in English as I gave her some old clothes and medicines. The sun shone daily and the mangoes were abundant. Yet everything else is scarce, apart from the unneutered dogs and cats that sit listlessly everywhere in the streets of Havana. I wondered whether all Cubans are truly equal, considering the wealth of the Castro family, the fortress homes of the politicians. While the native people did not survive the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century, was there really no underclass? I couldn’t decide if black and white mingled equally, as our dark-skinned driver had told us, or if black people doing the menial jobs at the hotels, with the whites at the reservation desk, was more than a coincidence. I saw no white people patrolling the seacoast, selling cheap wares.

One week after we got back, a man in Cuba was arrested for speaking out against the regime.


A Global Problem


Covid, Corona, Coronavirus, Virus


As the number of coronavirus cases swelled in northern Italy, I emailed my friend Ana to make sure she was all right. Ana lives just west of Lombardy, the region that was hardest hit in Italy. Fortunately, she had been self-isolating even before the pandemic because she was writing her thesis, and she and her family were fine. Ana informed me that she saw a political bias in the media’s reporting of the disease, because Italy was said to have a much higher number of fatalities than Germany. She explained that this was due to the fact that Italy included among its fatalities those who had an underlying condition that made the virus fatal, whereas Germany reported only those deaths that were a direct result of Covid-19 with no underlying ailments. Her perception made me think about how Italy’s experience of the virus is portrayed in the US media. We see videos of joyous Italians singing from their balconies and serenading their healthcare workers with guitars and harps. Whole blocks of apartment dwellers unite in song in the face of the medical disaster. We don’t see the same happening in Germany. Is it not happening in Germany, or are we simply having our biases confirmed?

I then wrote to my friend Cathrin in Munich to see how she was doing. Again, thankfully, she and her family were fine. I mentioned the news of hardy Germans resisting the virus and surviving in greater numbers. In response, she sent me an article from The New York Times (April 4, 2020, “A German Exception? Why the Country’s Coronavirus Death Rate is Low”), which provided a host of reasons why Germany is faring better than some other countries. The journalist explained that the German healthcare system is more “robust” and better prepared for a disaster, and that authorities began testing sooner and more frequently, exhibiting a much greater willingness to send people to the hospital and to commit public resources to the problem. The journalist also cited greater trust in government among Germans and therefore more compliance with lockdown measures. When we compare these reactions to what happened in the US, striking differences emerge. But it would seem there is nothing in the German character per se that lowers the death rate. Instead, our preconceived notions color our perspective.

What about China, where it all began? The White House insisted on calling the disease the Chinese virus, lest we forget who to blame. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities point out that Westerners criticized the severe lockdown measures in Wuhan, emphasizing that only a totalitarian government could have such control over its people. But when San Francisco imposed a similar ban, that was depicted as just good public health policy.

I also checked on my friends in France, who are all well. The elderly mother of the family I know wrote me to say that she had read about the total chaos and huge number of cases in New York, so she was worried about me. This situation was a reversal of the usual assumption that French countryfolk like my friends are a bit backward and unsophisticated, nothing like the shining example of progress and modernity that is New York City. My own reaction was surprise at the severity of measures taken in France to combat the virus: No one may go beyond one kilometer from their house, people must download and fill out a certificate stating a valid reason why they are out driving on the roads, to name but two. As a cultural aside, a friend from the Alsace region said that French people were stockpiling rice and pasta there, not toilet paper.

A prevalent American view of Mexicans is that they are carefree and disorganized. We might expect the virus to run rampant in Mexico, with no comprehensive plan to contain it and address the crisis. Indeed, the US press talks of Mexican President López Obrador not taking the virus seriously and not imposing nationwide self-isolation. Reuters quotes him as saying, “If I was worried…I would tell you, because I always tell the truth.” This state of affairs calls to mind another president farther north, leading a country that is nevertheless more industrialized and considered to be highly advanced. Similarly, regional governors and local officials in Mexico are taking the lead in telling Mexicans to stay home. So these failings would appear to stem from López Obrador’s personal and economic convictions, rather than from any innate national inability to handle crises.

My point is not that the media is biased or that it reinforces our preconceived notions, although such views may have validity. My point is that we have certain expectations and opinions of people that we should occasionally examine in the light of facts. I do think countries have their own national “traits” in some respects, and it’s always fun to indulge in anecdotes about horrible British cooking or scamming Nigerian princes. But with the coronavirus, we share a common suffering, everywhere around the world.


Español en Miami

The Spanish Language Division of the ATA and Florida’s local translator and interpreter group, ATIF, did a tremendous job organizing the recent Spring into Action conference in Miami. It offered me multiple learning experiences and one major revelation, as well as a great opportunity to chat in Spanish and meet people from all corners of the Spanish-speaking world.

One of the first talks I attended was about Spanish and “English” quotation marks, by Jorge de Buen Unna of the Universidad Anáhuac in Mexico. He caught my attention when he mentioned he had given this talk before and subsequently received written comments from a participant who was dismayed at how critical Mr. de Buen had been of English-language quote marks. The speaker went on to explain in Spanish that he did not mean to be critical, and stated in English that there should be “no offense taken.” In fact, he did say that he finds English quotes (“ ”) ugly, and that real Spanish uses guillemets (« »), but what truly sparked my interest was the fact that I was planning to say something very similar in the talk I would be giving at this conference in two days. I would be discussing the influence of Spanish as a source language on English target-language translation. Because I had also given a similar talk last year, I had a similar experience of an audience member telling me that I clearly didn’t like Spanish very much. So this time, I came prepared to explain that in fact, I love the Spanish language. Same coin, two sides.

The next day, I attended a talk by María Barros, a senior adviser and terminologist at the UN. Her topic was anglicisms in Spanish translation. One of her opening questions had no immediate answer:  Is there an equivalent term for Spanish words that crowd into the English language? I thought of Hispanicisms, but the fact that we had trouble coming up with a term speaks volumes about the current influence of English in the world. To my initial dismay, Ms. Barros was covering much of the ground that I would be discussing at my own talk, albeit in the direction English-to-Spanish rather than Spanish-to-English. She cautioned against using English-sounding words when Spanish had more suitable, Spanish-sounding words. She pointed out that Spanish translators forget to use the word “aquello,” limiting themselves to “esto” and “eso” because English has only “this” and “that.” She then advised against using the passive voice, claiming its use was frequent in English, and explained the concept of transposition—all points I was planning to make as well. I was digesting this trove of information from Ms. Barros as I walked out of the conference room when it dawned on me: The problem standing in the way of excellent translation that we were all addressing is not any perceived weakness or flawed style inherent in the source language, it’s the poor writing skills of those who produce the documents we are hired to translate.


The talk I attended on the last day of the conference, on seeking excellence when translating into Spanish, confirmed this revelation for me. The speaker was Alberto Gómez Font, he of the Fundación del Español Urgente, editor and professor at the news agency EFE, and member of the fun-loving Spanish-language collective Palabras Mayores. He urged Spanish translators to avoid long, cumbersome sentences and wordy phrases in favor of clear and direct writing. He counseled translators to avoid verbs like “hacer” and “tomar” when Spanish has much nicer and more descriptive verbs. Wait a minute, I thought, that’s the typical Spanish style, that’s what I’m going to tell my audience to avoid, too. But no, it turns out that excellent Spanish consists of clarity and conciseness just as much as English does. It’s our job as translators—of any language—to cut through the weak style of the original and produce well-written documents in our target language.

So I was grateful to Ms. Barros and Mr. Gómez for their contributions, both to my understanding of Spanish and to my presentation, and for their willingness to share their vast knowledge and experience. I appreciated all of the speakers I heard at the conference. They were intelligent, knowledgeable, and well prepared. They gave me insights into my own work from their opposite perspective of English into Spanish.

The attendees at my talk also taught me things. The native Spanish speakers said their English teachers had told them never to use phrasal verbs, because they are too informal.  And of course, they were taught the old mistaken chestnut—a preposition is something you shouldn’t end a sentence with. The group was appreciative and supportive. Overall, the Miami conference was an experience I won’t soon forget.


No Public Restrooms

I’m not one of those people who point out to waitresses or sales clerks that their sign or their menu has a glaring typo or grammar error in it. I’m one of those people who see errors in print and just smugly think about how bad the printed material looks. Except for this one time. Well, OK, I’ve done it a couple of times, but this one time sticks in my memory because of the response I got. I was at a farm stand and nursery and since it was fall in New England, the store had barrels of apples displayed. One barrel bore the sign “Locally Grown Mac’s.” See how bad that is? No one could resist pointing out that error, right? So when one of the workers came over I said, “You know, ‘Macs’ is plural there; it doesn’t need an apostrophe, it should just be m-a-c-s.” The man looked at me quizzically for an instant. Then he smiled and said, “Weah just fahmahs*!” So much for spreading enlightenment.

But I do notice these things, sometimes with consternation at the poor English, sometimes with amusement at the silly translation (“rape, sailor style,” “fried ear wire”). Living near a city with a large Hispanic population, I see a large number of signs poorly translated into Spanish. This dismays me on several fronts. First, the person having the English sign translated did not value the translation profession enough to hire an actual translator. Too many people do not realize that translation is not as simple as turning one word into another. Second, the Spanish is often nonsense, so it is not helping Spanish-speakers. And third, the incorrect Spanish on these signs is perpetuating the use of nonstandard Spanish or sometimes Spanglish.

So it was with great joy and satisfaction that I recently read a sign posted on a door at a NAPA Auto Parts store. This beautiful piece of literature read: No Public Restrooms/Servicios Privados. An actual Spanish-sounding rendering of the English words, something a Spanish speaker could understand, a way to effectively reduce the hordes of Spanish-speakers storming the store and asking to use the bathrooms (OK, maybe not that last one). Note the pleasing agreement of adjective and noun; the concise, yet appropriate choice of words; the delightfully correct spelling; the lovely avoidance of the word “baños.” A true gem.

Knowing it was an exercise in futility, I immediately asked the clerk where the sign came from. He didn’t know. I could have pursued the matter further à la Chris Durban, a well-known translator who used to publish pieces on her research into where things went wrong when companies produced bad translations. But I was satisfied just knowing the sign existed.And it wasn’t even handmade. It was an actual plastic sign with printed letters, so they must have ordered it from a business. Somewhere out there is a design store that cares enough to produce signs with proper translations. My hope in humanity is restored.


*Translation for non-New Englanders: We’re just farmers.

That’s Lady Mondegreen to You

One of the many fun components of language is the ways we can mishear or misuse it. This concept is known, appropriately, by many names: mondegreens, malapropisms, Bunkerisms, and more, depending on slight distinctions in meaning. “Mondegreen,” for example, is often applied to the mishearing of song lyrics. The story goes that American author Sylvia Wright coined the term in an essay she wrote in 1954 involving the lyrics to the Scottish ballad, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray”:

Ye highlands and ye lowlands
Oh where hae ye been?
Ye hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And laid him on the green.

What Ms. Wright heard as a child listening to the song was this: “Ye hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” So the lady died, and a new term was born. In more recent times, I’ve gotten a chuckle from my son’s mishearing of the Nirvana song “All Apologies.” When the ever-articulate Kurt Cobain sings the line, “All in all is all we are,” my son sings, “All alone in Narnia.” The funniest lyrical mondegreens ever have to be from the YouTube video of Joe Cocker singing “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

In spoken language, we have malaproprisms, or the ludicrous misuse of words. Archie Bunker on the ’70s sitcom All in the Family was well known for zingers such as, “I ain’t got no respect for no religion where the head guy claims he can’t make no mistakes. Like he’s, waddya call, inflammable,” or
“Some Catlick priest sprinkling incest over everyone.” I didn’t know it came in powdered form.
Eggcorns are a related phenomenon, but the new term coined may make a twisted sort of sense (“egg corn” as a substitute for “acorn”).

Spoonerisms are also a misuse of words, but unlike malapropisms, these transpose letters in words, as in, “one swell foop.” This term got its name from 19th-century British university dean William Archibald Spooner, who was unfortunately famous for slips of the tongue such as “our queer old dean” instead of “our dear old queen.” One of my favorite spoonerisms is the clever line of unknown origin, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

In the case of mondegreens, we’re just trying to make sense of foreign concepts and relate them to something familiar. How many of you pledged allegiance to the republic for witches’ stands in elementary school? Many did. Malapropisms often involve linguistic ignorance or pretentious attempts at sounding intelligent. Spoonerisms, however, can be intentional to produce comic effect. Ultimately, any variation from the usual, accepted use of language is often funny and always interesting.

Why Buy Human?

If you need to have documents translated, and you don’t want to break the bank with translation fees, you may be considering the use of machine translation, or MT. Translation done automatically by a computer comes in two main varieties: free, online translation such as Google Translate or Microsoft Translator, and customized machine translation engines. This post mainly covers the online sort, but stay tuned for a future article on the differences between the two types of MT and the current state of the technology.

Not surprisingly, I’d recommend hiring a human to translate any document where quality counts. Why? Six main reasons:

1) Human translators have brains, so we analyze a text and understand what the author’s main ideas are. Then we make sure those main ideas come across the same way in the translation. We are aware of the author’s style and writing techniques, and we also read between the lines much better than software can.

2) A human translator has background knowledge of the culture and practices that informed the source text. This means we know not to translate a phrase like “six in one hand” word for word into Japanese, for instance, and we also know that part of the expression is missing.

3) If you are willing to spend the time and money to produce high-quality text for the original document, you probably want to invest enough time and money to get a high-quality translation of that document.

4) Human translators have emotions, so we can tell whether the source text is meant to make the reader laugh, yell, or run out and buy your product, and we can reproduce the same effect in our translation.

5) Skilled translators specialize in specific areas so that they know which terminology to use. A machine can always find definitions for the French word “rendement,” but it wouldn’t know whether to select output, performance, efficiency, or yield as a translation.

6) Online MT programs do not preserve the confidentiality of your documents. ‘Nuff said.

Corey Plays Basketball

Corey runs out to the driveway to play basketball. Sides of his safari hat flapping, scrawny seven-year-old legs like little goal posts lift him swiftly outside. His expression is concentrated and intent, with traces of the joy he’s anticipating playing about his features. He grabs the basketball and starts dribbling while I clean up in the kitchen.


Tap-tap — You can hear me, Mom. I’m okay.

Tap-tap — I’m serious about this practice, laying up my shot.

Tap-tap — I’m having so much fun.

Tap-tap — No strangers are coming to steal me away. I’m still here.

Tap-tap — Pure innocence in the summer sunshine.

Tap-tap — Nothing more pressing to do this whole afternoon but bounce my ball up and down.

Tap-tap — Just a regular boy at a perfectly normal house enjoying a typical summertime activity.

Every tap-tap tells me that he’s okay, he’s safe, and he is happy.



©2017 Diana Rhudick