Lost in translation

I am starting to realize that one of the reasons labor costs are so low is because so much of the labor I use cannot speak English. In theory, English is the common language in the United States, but in practice it often is not. English works fine for me on the job and usually works in stores, but its use becomes problematical with most of the service industry.

At the Wendy’s, the lady behind the counter speaks English as does the manager, but everyone actually preparing the food appears to speak only Spanish. At least that’s how I hear them communicate among themselves. In fact, I have yet to go to a Wendy’s within fifty miles of my house and not find all the workers Hispanic and speaking Spanish to each other. I assume that most whites won’t consider working at Wendy’s. Maybe it’s too low class or something. Or maybe it is because they would have no idea of what their colleagues are saying, unless they studied Spanish in high school. It’s intimidating to work a job when you can barely communicate with your coworkers. I suspect to the extent that anyone wants a low wage job, Hispanics are preferred at Wendy’s.

I don’t interact much with the people who cut my lawn but when I listen to them, it’s clear that they too are Hispanic. The same seems to be true with the trash crew. I hear the guy hauling the trash whistling and talking with the driver, usually in Spanish. I have no particular reason to complain about this. I don’t normally need to speak to someone who is cutting my lawn, but if I did it would be best to relearn Spanish, because I don’t think they understand much English.

It’s those home services where it is easy to get meaning lost in translation. Recently, we removed the dated vinyl countertop and installed a new granite countertop. The business we bought from is family owned and run by a Chinese man. It’s hard to know if the installers were family, cousins or just part of the local Chinese American network, but they were all Chinese. When they came to install their English was obviously marginal. One of the two clearly did not understand a word of English, and the other often had confused looks on his face and spoke in short sentences when he spoke. Communicating mostly involved a lot of pointing and repetition. To make it more confusing, while our countertop installation was done by a Chinese crew the plumber arrived to attach the new garbage disposal. He was Hispanic. It all got done, sort of, but it was often confusing.

I am learning that when I have a contractor in the house I must closely monitor them because chances are they will goof up on some important detail. It’s not their competency which is usually the problem, just clear communications. Something usually gets mistranslated between talking to the salesman in the showroom and the installer trying to do the work.

If you can afford a maid service, you will likely discover that maids are particularly challenging to communicate with because few of them can speak more than a handful of English words. They are usually dropped off and picked up when they are done. Explaining how you like your bathrooms cleaned or how to dust properly can consume a lot of your time because mostly you get blank or confused looks. It helps to have the same maids every week, but there is often large turnover among maids. Eventually we decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.

This system is less than optimal, but presumably is quite cost effective. Arguably it does sort of work somehow. It must be intimidating to the non-English speaking or marginally English-speaking workers around us, and there are many. It is no wonder that they choose to cloister in similar communities. Some businesses have decided that being multi-lingual is good for business. The local Lowe’s has signs in both English and Spanish, and some of the cashiers identify themselves as multi-lingual. While Hispanics form the major minority in the area, they are hardly alone. There are also Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Egyptians, Turks, Filipinos, Cambodians, Thais, Indonesians, and people from various places in the Caribbean. They seem to have their specialties. The Koreans are running the dry cleaners and convenience stores. The Indians are in the carpet and tile business. The Pakistanis are also in the carpet and tile business. The Chinese are mostly doing high tech stuff or are in a highly entrepreneurial business and at least here in Northern Virginia are mostly businesses of one or two, usually related, subcontracting to some major Beltway Bandit. Mostly the Hispanics are mowing and landscaping our lawns and running the trash trucks. So far the roofers still seem to be principally blue collar whites, but that is doubtlessly changing.

It is clear to me that I pay extra in time and attention for having so many people providing services who cannot speak English or who can speak it only marginally. In fact, English is not really our common language, as so many residents simply cannot speak it with reasonable proficiency. Maybe we need some other common language. Spanglish, perhaps. Maybe it is time to resurrect Esperanto. Its time may have finally arrived.

2 responses to “Lost in translation”

  1. Funny but so true! I don’t mind the hassle sometimes as long as the housecleaners can do a good job.


  2. I had a good chuckle reading this thinking back to my various ’embarrassments’ while trying to communicate with those whose second language is English. Some of them have things worked out to a T – when we had our home built in Vegas, the crews for everything were Mexican. Almost to a person they didn’t speak English but each crew, dry wallers, painters, framers etc all had a lead guy. The lead guy was their translator & spoke English well.
    Where I did have a problem was in California where it seemed all dental assistants were Chinese or someone of another Asian persuasion. Number one problem for me is I have difficulty with the accent. Not their fault, but mine. Problem two is trying to speak so they understand while they have their hand in my mouth. Oh sure, funny now but I’m surprised I still have any teeth left in my mouth from sheer misunderstanding…we are truly a potpourri of nationalities & honestly, I love it.


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