Thursday, December 02, 2010

Crossing the language divide using online tools

I'd like to tell you a true story about something that happened to me quite recently.

We keep getting mail for the previous owners of our house. We have lived in this house for more than two and a half years, so mostly, it's just junk mail. But there's one rather serious-looking envelope that keeps arriving from Paris. It's addressed in French and indicates it contains official documents which require a signature. I think it has something to do with tax, but I'm not quite sure what gave me that impression.

I have repeatedly done a return to sender, but the documents keeps returning, each time with a more urgent looking message on the envelope. Last time, I wrote on the envelope in large letters: Mr Bloggs has not lived at this address for well over two years, please update your records.

The documents came back last week.

I was tempted to open them to find some contact details, when I noticed what appeared to be a phone number on the front of the envelope. Nothing ventured...

I used Google translate to find out how to say, "Is there anyone there who can speak English, please?" and practised it a few times.

When the phone was answered, I stumbled through "Est-ce qu'il ya quelqu'un qui parle anglais, s'il vous plaƮt?"

The lady told me that there was not.

Hmm. How was I going to explain my situation to her? I know enough French to say "Je ne parle pas francais, mais une moment, s'il vous plait..."

I typed into the translate box, "You keep sending me letters for Mr Bloggs." followed by "But he hasn't lived in this house for more than two years." I then used the 'listen' button to play this to her through my phone.


She figured out (more or less) what I was doing and spoke very slowly back to me in a combination of French and English. Eventually, we managed to establish that I no longer wanted Mr Bloggs's tax demands (or whatever they were), that I didn't have a forwarding address for him, and that she should stop sending his mail here.

It was clunky, but you know what? It worked. Now where's my flipping babelfish?

1 comment:

Irma said...

smashing. congrats.