Found in Translation
Sofia doesn’t speak a word of English. I speak almost no Russian. Sofia is unaware of this latter fact. It's not that I intended to deceive a foreign elderly woman for three years, but I also didn’t do anything to clarify the situation. All intentions aside, it was my utter cowardice that allowed this misunderstanding to turn into one of my most unique and valuable friendships.
Sofia was an elderly Russian resident at the seniors’ home where I volunteered on Saturdays all throughout high school. She was tiny, with obviously-dyed red hair and a stubborn single-mindedness which lead me to believe she was once a natural redhead. She had a mischievous spark in her eyes and a coltish spirit that seemed to originate from a youthfulness that was well preserved in her feeble frame.
When I first arrived at the home, I was eager to learn and connect with as many residents as possible. I brushed up on my sign language to tell Walter his shirt looked nice. I learned to project and enunciate so that Lily could hear me when I told her it was time for a program. I researched the effects of Alzheimer’s disease to better understand the residents on the dementia unit. Just when I thought I conquered all the challenges of communication with the elderly, I met Sofia.
When I first saw her, she was sitting in a plush red chair in the front foyer. I walked up to her and asked “how are you today?” only to receive a long jumble of words in a dialect I couldn’t understand. A co-worker of mine laughed and said “good luck with that one. Sofia doesn’t speak a word of English. No one can communicate with her.”
To some people, this sounded like a dismissal of efforts to befriend Sofia. To me, this sounded like a challenge.
The plan wasn’t to go home and learn Russian all in one night. That would be a little too ambitious— not to mention impossible— even for me. I simply wanted to learn a couple basic phrases to communicate in passing and for brief moments in the hallways.
I employed the vast knowledge of Google Translate, wordreference.com, and even called my friend who grew up in Russia. By the next weekend, I was armed with some basic phrases to greet Sofia.
The next time I saw her, I confidently asked “how are you?” in Russian, and Sofia’s eyes sparkled with understanding. Unfortunately, my self-taught linguistics did not prepare me for the rambling of Russian that poured out of Sofia’s mouth. Somehow, when I learned how to say “how are you,” I didn’t actually think about learning how to understand the response. I was helpless, only able to say “yes,” “no,” “good,” and “bad,” in response, and when I did say one of those words, it usually spurred a whole new rant.
It took three encounters like this for me to realize that Sofia didn’t think I just knew basic Russian, but that I understood her in complete fluency.
Instead of clarifying the misconception immediately like a normal person, I made the “mature” decision to avoid the awkward situation and obvious language barrier. On many Saturdays, when Sofia began a conversation, I would point at the door and smile apologetically as though I had somewhere else to be. Other days, I would speed past her, pretending I hadn’t seen her.
For a while, I debated my issue with a careful morality. Was it better to let a ninety-year-old woman believe that I understood her? Or to tell her the truth and let her continue to live in isolation?
When I consulted a friend for advice, she reprimanded me.
“Tricking an old lady is wrong. What if she realizes you are faking? I mean, how convincing can you be with only a few words?”
It was true. Language is elusive, and even with a basic level of fluency, it is still possible to get lost in translation. And Sofia didn’t particularly go easy on me either. She spoke fast and comfortably in long anecdotes and lectures of advice. I could barely keep up, and often I just sat there utterly confused as I tried to mask my blank stare with that of contented amusement and understanding. Usually, as Sofia spoke, I just sat there baffled as she rambled on. Sometimes she would ask a question and stop to wait for my response. Having no idea what she had said, I would take a gamble and respond with a yes or no, knowing that I had a fifty-percent chance of saying something offensive.
Despite the challenge of maintaining my illusion, I eventually found myself going to visit Sofia more often. There was something magical about the way she talked. It was like a code, some real-life guessing game that forced me to read body language and facial cues with closer scrutiny and careful deliberation. The more I listened to her and got to know her vocal and physical tendencies, the better I got at translating the general nature of the conversations we were apparently having. I could tell when she gave me advice because her face would harden and her voice became firm and educational. I could tell when she was telling me stories because her eyes would take on a sort of distant twinkle and a nostalgic smile would spread across her lips blissfully. Her inflection would change, and she would even put on character voices. Sometimes Sofia would sing songs to me, holding my hands and doing actions with each of the lyrics that I couldn’t comprehend. These times were my favourite.
I was captivated by the magic of Sofia’s voice. It was capable of communicating so many things beyond words, and pretty soon the Russian got lost in a sea of emotion, thought, and meaning. I no longer stared blankly and tried to find excuses to leave. I no longer avoided coming over to speak to her in the first place, and I no longer panicked when I didn’t know how to respond. Instead, whenever I was speechless, I just smiled; and that smile was always understood. When Sofia spoke, I was no longer just listening; I was understanding.
After three years, Sofia still didn’t know that I don’t speak Russian. But this fact no longer mattered. Because even though I didn’t speak Russian, I spoke Sofia. I didn’t need a dictionary or wordreference.com to understand the meaning behind a smile, a warm hug, or a sense of companionship.
Some may still argue that my relationship with Sofia was cruel. They may accuse me of lying to an old woman, taking advantage of her naivety. But when I saw the glow of Sofia’s face when she felt like she wasn’t alone, when I felt the warmth of her hands around my own, I know it isn’t true. I became a friend to an old woman who had none, and in turn she has taught me the power of misunderstanding.