Daily Archives: February 6, 2018

Lost in Translation



Imagine you are driving on the streets of Mexico. You come up to an intersection. There, you see a large, red sign in the shape of an octagon. White letters spell out “ALTO.” If you live in Mexico, or are fluent in the Spanish language, you probably just stop. If, like me, English is your only language, your mind does a little two-step: “ALTO…aah…STOP.” Even when the meaning is clear (and many words – hello, good-bye, pretty, thank-you – areĀ  familiar in many languages), my brain does a little translation.

In this age of computer graphics, I find myself often in a position of having to translate from the images in much the same way. I understand that pictures are there to remove the language barrier, and it’s not a bad idea. However, I am of an age that did not grow up with pictographs; I find many of the images a bit challenging.

Facebook has a tiny fist making the “thumb’s up” gesture that you can click on to indicate that you “like” the posting. Lately, they’ve added several other choices. The heart means you “love” the posting. Already I’m in trouble. First, I encounter a short video of a kitten who is crazily following a beam of light. I “love” it. Next, an inspirational quote that seems to hit home; I “love” that, too. A video of a baby’s first encounter with a mirror: “love.”

Soon, if I take the time to scroll through my facebook feed, I will encounter other things: a couple celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary by renewing their vows; Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World;” a photo of my nephew with his two beautiful sons; the story of several bystanders who worked together to save a woman pinned under a car; a notice that my niece has just graduated from college; a wheelchair-bound Viet Nam veteran who managed to save a family from a burning building. Clearly, I was too quick on the draw with the “love.” I scroll back through, to change my initial “love”s to simple “like”s, and vow to be more judicious in the future.

The other choices are even more confusing. A wide-eyed, open-mouthed little face is supposed to be “wow” but – to me – appears frightened. The “sad” face looks ashamed, the “Haha” face seems taunting, and the “angry” face – in my interpretation – appears to be struggling with severe constipation. I don’t dare use any of them without reading the translation!

Likewise, my car uses pictographs to guide me through its foibles. There are no words to direct me, and I’m a little slow on the up-take. I was pretty quick to pick up on the fact that the image of [what for all intents and purposes looks exactly like] a fan was pointing me to the windshield wipers. I was slower to figure out that the cute little Aladdin’s lamp was actually the “oil” light.

A picture of a tiny refrigerator baffled me for a long time. What did a refrigerator have to do with my car? Do I have air conditioning? What? It’s 10 degrees outside, I certainly don’t need air conditioning! Eventually, I realized that it wasn’t really a refrigerator, but a bird’s-eye view of my car. And, if I examined it really closely, I could see that it looked like the refrigerator’s side panels were kicked out ever so slightly. That befuddling image is the “door ajar” warning!

Now and then, when the engine doesn’t quite turn over, but I don’t realize it because of the sound of the heater, I’ll see a little picture of a submarine. Or, it’s possible that it could be a primitive space helmet, like we saw in early science fiction movies. It didn’t take me long to conclude that it is actually the “engine” light. Still, not being fluent in the language of pictographs, my thoughts run this way: “Oh…submarine…or space helmet…aah…engine light!”

I’m thinking that probably people who have grown up with images-rather-than-words are not stymied in the least by them. When going to the rest room, they simply enter through the appropriate door. I, on the other hand, am slowed by trying to decipher which door has a little person-shape that appears to be wearing a skirt! I have to allow time to be lost in the translation!