Lost in Translation

12 March 2016

We sat in the common area at long tables and benches, some people drinking wine from a gallon-sized plastic jug, some people reading their guidebooks preparing for the next day’s stage, some people chatting, some people eating. I looked around the room, wondering how many of these people I would come to know along my Camino journey. I sensed a new presence in the room and looked up to see a priest standing beside me with a bottle of something precious cradled in one arm and a stack of small plastic cups cradled in the other. He filled the small cups with the herbal liquor and passed them out freely. In Spanish, he invited us on a special tour of the monastery. A small group of perhaps 10 or 15 pilgrims gathered. Don Valentine surveyed the group, asking how many people needed an English translation. Several people raised their hands. He said he didn’t speak English. Lino, the Italian man I had chatted with (in Spanish) at dinner, pointed to me and said I could be the translator for the group, if Don Valentine would speak slowly. I protested – “Hablo un poquito español” – to deaf ears. I wondered how well my 37% fluency (according to DuoLingo) would fare in this situation.

You know those dubbed foreign movies where the characters speak for minutes and minutes and there is one short line of English overlaid? And the actors’ mouths keep moving but there is no English translation? And you suspect you’re missing part of the dialogue? That was basically how I performed as a translator.

Don Valentine would speak (not so slowly) and speak and speak. I would have been hard pressed to summarize what he had been saying, even if it had been in English. My memory simply isn’t that great. I focused on translating his words from Spanish to English, remembering key facts in my head, and waiting for a break in his speaking to share with the English speakers in the group. After several minutes of him talking and me staring intently at him, trying so hard to make sense of his soliloquies, I’d look at the group and say, “The monastery was built a long time ago.” Another several minutes of talking. “There was a big snow storm.” And more talking. “The arches exploded.” An Italian in the group who claimed he didn’t know much English corrected me. “They imploded.” I encouraged others to continue contributing to the translation efforts.

New arches were built, and covered with a roof with wood from Finland. We saw the original workings of an ancient clock. We stood behind the stained glass windows. We snuck around balconies in the dark, guided by a couple of headlamps. We oohed and aahed at the high Gothic beams. We heard explanations for the symbolism in the sanctuary.

I walked quietly back to the dorm room, content that even if nothing else of note happened on the Camino, I would be content. This night exceeded my expectations. And I had at least 30 more ahead of me…


In the Roncesvalles Monastery