There is something to be said for knowing the local language. Until you do, you will always be an outsider to the conversation and transitively the people. This week I’m working in Argentina and learning that something very special is lost in translation.

One thing you should know is that outside of Brazil (Portuguese) the rest of Latin America, and that includes more than just Mexico, speaks Spanish. It’s a little strange in that most people know English but they are not as fluent in it as, say, Europeans are. Residents of Latin America stick with Spanish the way Americans stick with English (ok, not quite as bad as us.) When you have the entire continent speaking your language, what reason is there to learn another? On the other hand, Europeans have to learn several languages in order to communicate in business.

I was presenting this week to an audience in Argentina. Whenever someone had a question but could not articulate it in English, my partner would handle it in Spanish. They would talk and debate and then look at me and say, “Ok, continue”. I didn’t know what they discussed and if it would overlap any with what I was about to say or would say later. After a few times of this happening I tried to listen for works such as “encryption” or anything else security related. After a while I even gave up on this and simply looked at their faces and hand gestures to try and obtain some meaning (however little) from the conversations they were having.

I have to say, this was one of the most difficult presentations I have given in a long time. The problem is that I slowed down my speech and tried to say things several times using different words in hope that if someone didn’t understand one word they would get the other. This, of course, limits the amount of information one can convey because you are constantly repeating yourself. I found myself wanting to provide examples and discuss special case scenarios, but then decided against it because I felt doing so would loose most of the audience in [the lack of] translation.

During the other presentations I sat there trying to stay awake and focused. Imagine you are sitting in a room and for 4 hours you can’t understand a word of what is being said. I found taking “notes” helped me stay awake and look attentive. Here is some of what I wrote:

  • I feel like a fake in this meeting. Everyone is having conversations and I can’t understand a thing.
  • I think they are talking about banks.
  • I want to go on a walk.
  • Lot’s of questions – all in Spanish – wonder what they are saying.
  • <break> thank god, more coffee! safe for now.
  • Sitting here, reading PowerPoint slides in English. I have seen these many times before but everything spoken is in Spanish. It’s like watching the movie The Terminator dubbed in French.
  • I listen and pretend to understand the questions and answers.
  • I need to take a bathroom break… stall for time.
  • Need to stay awake. This is like watching C-SPAN coverage of a local political meeting in Spanish.