The cashier noticed her before I did. She was wearing an easter dress and a pink rosette around her temple where her hair was pulled taught by a meticulously styled ponytail. She was peering hesitantly at the cashier, wanting to be noticed without appearing disrespectful. I knew that look, that hesitation, that assertiveness. It wasn’t her first time taking charge.
“May I help you?” The young cashier’s lack of condescension helped the girl relax a bit.
“How much money are these?” She held up a pair of pink heels. The cashier scanned the barcode and told her the price. “$34.99”
The girl smiled tenuously and walked back to her mother who was standing by a pillar trying to appear casual as she waited anxiously for the verdict. The little girl whispered something and the mother shook her head as she returned the shoe to the display counter. It exceeded her budget.
The encounter left a reminiscent smile on my face. I remembered that not long ago I, too, was a 5 year old child leading a dual life: that of a child and a translator. At home my parents ruled with a swiftness that left no doubt of their competence and authority. Outside of home, those same unwavering parents walked with hesitant steps as they struggled to navigate their new country. They were proud of their native language and forbade speaking the foreign tongue inside their home. Yet, they were well aware that our family’s survival depended on that same foreign tongue – the one I was learning in school.
That’s where my role as a translator was born. I became the bridge between two worlds; at once novice and teacher. I quickly learned to read and speak English, unaware that my parents’ demand for academic superiority was a pretense hiding basic necessity. My parents did not have the luxury to learn and savor the new language, or the patience to understand the nuances of the new culture. What they did have was an eldest daughter whose sole responsibility as a dutiful daughter was to make them proud. Historically, my family’s lineage of daughters brought our family pride by fulfilling gender specific roles; but in this country, my bilingualism was the root of their pride. Thus, at the tender age of 5 I embarked on a journey to become their translator.
Although my role as a translator has evolved over the years, what remains of those formative years is an acute awareness of the meaning of words and the emotions they convey and conceal in translation. In my world, Spanish is soft, safe, emotive, and carnal; while English is rigid, authoritarian, detached, and exotic. The two languages coexist within me in a symbiotic dependency. Without one, I lose the other. Without either, I lose myself.
As I watched the little girl – the young translator – carry the shoe back to her mother, I couldn’t help but think that maybe one day she, too, will see herself in another and be reminded that her story was forged by necessity.
“The Translator” by Azul Serena