My Russian is terrible. I've given up hope that I will ever be anything approaching good at Russian, but I still study it because it's so painful to be so bad after so many years of studying. At this point I can speak like a two year-old. I understand a lot of what is being said (although sometimes I get completely lost, holding on to a few understood words like a drowning man to a passing log), but when I open my mouth everything is in the wrong case or tense or aspect. People understand the gist of what I'm saying, but I sound ridiculous.
Last Friday, my horseback riding teacher asked if I could translate for her. She has a horse that has problems and she had heard that there was a vet in town who might be able to give her some more advice than the local vets have been able to offer. The only problem was that he didn't speak Russian and she doesn't speak English.
The club next door to where we ride held a four day FEI jumping tournament this past week with riders from all over the former Soviet Union and a few other nations also. As part of the tournament, an FEI vet came in to certify the horses before the competition to make sure that they were all sound and wouldn't get injured while competing.
So after our lessons, we headed over to the club to consult with the vet. When we got there, everything was in full swing with riders, horses, spectators, officials, and support staff everywhere. The girls were in absolute heaven (the boys got left in the car). We eventually made our way to the vet, who was at a table in the VIP section with several other FEI officials. When we were introduced, he mentioned that he was Iranian.
It's always a little sticky running into Iranians when we are overseas because of the weird official relations between the two countries. I've always found Iranians to be very kind and hospitable people, but there's always a weird understanding that on some level hanging out with them is not exactly all the way okay. This was the same, as nobody said anything, but everyone stiffened ever so slightly when it came out that I was married to an American diplomat.
But nobody was there to talk or care about politics, we were there to talk about lame horses and I was there to translate what he had to say in English (not his first language) to Russian (not anything even close to my first language). Everyone at the table spoke some level of English, but it wasn't anyone's first language but my own. I had to wonder why anyone hadn't thought of using Google translate (which has a talk-to-text translation feature) to solve their problem, but that's not what had happened. Instead they had me.
I was able to explain the horse's problem (Russian-English translation is okay for me) and then stumble terribly through an explanation to my teacher of what to do (English-Russian translation is a different story altogether). At one point a young lady at the table jumped in to help with the Russian-speaking end and I really had to wonder why I was there. But then when I heard her Russian translation, I realized that her English comprehension wasn't that great and maybe I was useful after all.
At one point in the whole endeavor, I had a little laugh at the completely ridiculous situation I had gotten myself into. As diplomats, we get a free ticket into a class of society that everyone local had to use money to gain entrance into. In places like Uzbekistan, that class is very aware of their status and what it means. So there's a sense not really belonging in those places all of the way because really we're just regular people doing a government job, but still being part of that class anyway because of who we represent. But that sense has faded over time, and now I feel pretty comfortable in those situations.
So I was sitting at the VIP table with event officials who, at one time, I would have seen as Important People, but now I realize are people who are simply normal people doing their job like my husband is a normal person doing his job that includes attending meetings with foreign ministers and presidents' daughters. They all understood one half of the conversation that I was having with an Iranian veterinarian, but none of them understood the other half of the conversation that was being stumbled through by the wife of an American diplomat dressed in sweaty riding gear. My riding teacher understood nothing the vet said, and the Uzbek young lady understood half of what he said. I understood everything the vet said, most of what the young lady said, most of what the riding teacher said, but explained everything to my teacher with hand gestures and terribly bad grammar. Meanwhile the Uzbek military was coming in with bayonetted AK-47s to do a military half time show while the ladies in Uzbek costume were getting ready to hand out prizes to the winners of the 130 cm class that had just finished. Most of the time my life is normal and makes sense. And sometimes it goes a little sideways.
In the end, I was able to get the important information across, I small-talked with the vet about LA, living in Milan, and hopes for seeing each other again at another competition (because of course I attend these things in between schooling seven children and running a household), and then I left, having done the job I came to do.
I was able to peel the girls away from the horses and got back to my car so that I could get home and relieve my housekeeper who was waiting for my return. As I got closer, I realized that yes, those were both my sons standing on the roof while a concerned Uzbek police man was watching to make sure they didn't fall off and die in a random back alley. I herded them back inside the car, went home, and then resumed my normal non-translator-at-international-jumping-competitions job where I tell children to do their homework and break up fights. Just another day of a homeschooling mom in Central Asia!