Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Google-translating my way through expat life

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I think we can all acknowledge how vastly the internet has changed our lives. Though I didn’t have an internet connection until I was at least halfway through high school, it’s difficult for me to remember what life was life before the All-Knowing Internet appeared. Imagine, or recall: we used to have to find the appropriate book when we wanted to look up a piece of information, which meant that factual disputes could have to wait hours or days to be resolved — today, you run to your computer, or someone whips out their iphone, and the answer is revealed almost instantly. The world really is at our fingertips.

And online tools continue to evolve and make our lives easier, all the time. One tool that has proved immensely useful to me as a person living abroad and possessing a, um, language deficit, is Google Translate. It translates German webpages for me; it helps me read German novels (yes, I try) and newspaper articles; it is the reason that my landlady thinks I’m capable of calling workers to arrange to have them fix things.

Of course, I could do these things without Google Translate — they would just be so much more painstaking. In fact, last week I had a nice reminder of this. Sadly, it began when I broke my little friend. It was one of those this-could-only-happen-to-klutzy-me moments: I was reaching for something on top of a cupboard, and knocked over something which caused a domino effect which culminated in the water tank for the espresso machine, which was on the counter to dry, falling to the floor and sustaining a very large crack. The tank was kaputt, as a German speaker would say.

I did nothing for a few days (we are not regular coffee drinkers, after all) and then I plucked up my courage and called Nespresso. A recorded voice came on, asking me to choose between the German, French, and Italian languages. After a moment’s deliberation, I chose French. I used to be fluent, and I figured I could hack my way through his conversation more easily in French than in Deutsch.

A lady came on the line, and I was able to explain my problem with the reservoir d’eau. It seemed that things were going swimmingly, until she asked me to provide her with a number. After that it went something like this:

Me: “OK, il est uehn…” (my rendition of the French number “1”)

Her: “Dites-vous eueh?” (as in the French letter “e”)

Me: “Non — uehn

And so it went for a short while — we kept making nasal vowel sounds at each other, and she was insisting that I should be giving her only numbers, not letters, and I was insisting that I was telling her a number. And then she broke the impasse by ascertaining that I was an English speaker and offering to transfer me to an English-speaking representative. I spoke to this person briefly, explaining the reason for my call, and they said, “oh, well you’ll have to speak to this other department.” I was transferred again, and hello, Swiss-German language bomb. But eventually I understood that I would have to sign up for something on the internet in order to receive  a specific code, and call back.

I obtained the code, and then I prepared for the second call using Google-translate: in less than two minutes, I had created this one-sided script for myself:

You can see that it contained some very elementary things — of course, at this point, I know how to say “Good afternoon,” but it’s amazing how much I can freeze up in the immediacy of a phone call, and it’s comforting to know that all the words are there in front of me. The script also plans for the case that I won’t understand what the person is saying, or that I will have to abandon the call entirely. But happily, neither of these things happened — I was able to “fake” my way through the conversation, and the new Wassertank was delivered and is now snugly installed in the machine.

Don’t worry: I know that Google Translate does not always provide top-notch translations. I don’t plan to use it in lieu of learning the language (after all, there are still a lot of real-life interactions where it can’t be used).  At this point in my language learning, though, I’m so happy to have it at my disposal. I don’t want to think about how much time it would have taken me to create a script the old-fashioned way, with a two-way dictionary — but then again, I guess I also shouldn’t think about how I probably just squandered the time I saved on Facebook and other inane internet content. I just want to thank Google Translate for making expat life a little bit easier.

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5 thoughts on “Google-translating my way through expat life

  1. I’m glad that you got the espresso machine fixed. I grew very attached to it when I was visiting 🙂 That script is a great idea!

    • Thanks — I’m also glad it’s fixed. I’ve had a few cups of decaf to celebrate.

      What type of machine did you end up getting? Hope you’re happy with it!

  2. That’s great! It is tough to imagine how we managed before the internet!

  3. I love translators…I’ve just started commenting on a French site using iTranslate. Top translation 🙂

  4. Pingback: On paying to be free of the net | Milchtoast

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