My friend Lenny was always fond of saying “Vas is los mitt der garten hose?” whenever he had a situation to ponder. Lenny was a carpenter—a damn fine carpenter of German descent—who could make the form boards for a concrete foundation look every bit as beautiful as a walnut China Hutch. He could also do it in half the amount of time as anybody else.
Working with Lenny, and hearing his nonsensical phrase, always stirred up memories of my early childhood. I spent a lot of time with my father’s parents while he and my mother were at work during the day. My grandparents had emigrated to America from Germany in the early part of the 20th Century with six children and had four more in their newly adopted homeland.
By the time that I was five years old I had passable conversation skills in the German language. It is sad to say, though, that that particular skill was beaten out of me at school one day at the start of second grade. The end of WWII was only 10 years in the past and the pain of lost loved ones was still very strong in some families in my newly adopted homeland of South Florida.
I have the utmost respect and admiration for people who are fluent in more than one language. My grandfather spoke 11 languages and could read a total of 14. I can remember his neighbors bringing newspapers and letters from “the old country” to him for translation. Many of them were illiterate in their native language and most were not proficient in the English language. We would sit in the parlor, or on the porch, and my grandfather would read to them. I learned a good lesson about compassion for others and extending a helping hand to those who are struggling in Life.
All of this was on my mind during a walk yesterday when my friend showed me a new Smartphone app: Google Translate. This app can translate back-and-forth among 90 languages. It has a camera function that enables the user to take a photo of a sign and convert it into another language. You can even drag your finger across selected areas of the photo and just translate that part of the picture.
Here is an example of a sign, and screenshots of my phone, with the German, French and Spanish versions alongside. You may click on an image to enlarge it:
But wait, there’s more. This app also has an audible feature which enables you to speak into the phone (Where is a good place to eat in this neighborhood?), translate the message and play it back in the new language. Yes, I know, it is the work of the Devil—or shadowy government operatives at the very least.
All of this is available for one low price: It’s free!
I don’t know how much I will use this app but I do know this: I feel like I have reconnected with my grandfather and those special days that I spent as a fly-on-the-wall as I watched and listened to him, and wondered how languages had evolved so much over time and distance.