Multiculturality, Music, Spanish

Mi burrito sabanero

This song was composed for the holiday season in 1972 by the famed Venezuelan composer Hugo Blanco (known for the song Moliendo Café) and has become a Christmas favorite in much of Latin America. My wife Alicia Isabel Santacruz recorded this version some years ago, with a light arrangement by Jaime Chávez.

Lyrics (English below):

Con mi burrito sabanero voy camino de Belén
con mi burrito sabanero voy camino de Belén
Si me ven, si me ven voy camino de Belén
si me ven, si me ven voy camino de Belén
El cielito montañero ilumina mi sendero
El cielito montañero ilumina mi sendero
Si me ven, si me ven voy camino de Belén
Si me ven, si me ven voy camino de Belén
Tuqui tuqui tuqui tuqui, tuqui tuqui tuqui ta
Aapurate mi burrito que ya vamos a llegar
Tuqui tuqui tuqui tuqui, tuqui tuqui tuqui tu
Apúrate mi burrito vamos a ver a Jesús

With my little grassland donkey, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
With my little grassland donkey, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
If you see me, if you see me, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
If you see me, if you see me, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
The mountain sky lights my way
The mountain sky lights my way
If you see me, if you see me, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
If you see me, if you see me, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
Tuki tuki tuki tuki, tuki tuki tuki ta
Hurry my little donkey, we’re about to  arrive
Tuki tuki tuki tuki, tuki tuki tuki tu
Hurry my little donkey, we’re going to see Jesus

Language, Multiculturality, Translation

When no means yes, 7 = 8, 14 = 15, and 20 = 21 = 22

Translation brings to light all the odd things about language.

In Latin America, “No” is used as a general interjection like “oh” or “um”, often combined with “pues,” another interjection that has little meaning. A sentence that starts with “No, pues, es que estuvimos…” might be be translated as “Oh, well, we were…” or “Yes, but the thing is that we were…” or “No, because we were…” depending on context.

One of the oddest Spanish concatenations is the expression “No, pues sí,” which literally means “No, well, yes”:

“¿Pasaste por la tienda?”
“No, pues sí, pero no había de eso.”

“Did you go to the store?”
“Oh, yeah, but they didn’t have any.”

We English speakers all know that a week has seven days, so two weeks is 14 days, three weeks is 21, and so on. In Spanish, however, “ocho días” (eight days) to refers to a period of week. A week from today is “en ocho días” because today and next Wednesday both get counted. Two weeks is “quince días” (15 days) by the same principle.

When you get to three weeks, however, things get tricky. In Costa Rica it’s “veintidós días” (22 days) but in Colombia it’s “veinte días” (20 days).

However… four weeks is not “29 días”. It’s “cuatro semanas” (four weeks) or “treinta días” (30 days), either of which may refer either to the same day of the month (the 18th of July) or the same day of the week (Wednesday four weeks from now). Dates that far out are likely to be fuzzy in any case, so your best bet is to check a few days before to find out when you are expected (or if they even remember that you had an appointment).

Food, Multiculturality

Beans on toast

I’m reading a British mystery novel, and the detectives keep eating beans on toast. I had never heard of it before. Apparently it’s a common thing there, like donuts for American cops. Sounds disgusting.

Other literary sources (Terry Pratchett) indicate that vindaloo (hot curry) is a favored meal for cops on the night shift. I don’t think I’ve had curry in decades. I read somewhere that it’s the most popular food in England.

In older British detective stories (most notably by Dorothy Sayers), the restaurants of choice are French, perhaps because Lord Peter is a man of means. When actual British food is described, it sounds heavy and mildly disgusting: steak and kidney pie, sausages and mash, fish and chips, kippers, black pudding, Cornish pasties, spotted dick…

There’s an old joke that says that heaven is where the project is directed by Germans, the labor is supplied by Brits, the Italians provide the entertainment, and the French provide the food. In hell, the Italians direct the project, the French provide the labor, the Brits supply the food, and the Germans are the entertainers.

My dad’s parents were German immigrants. Dad used to buy sauerkraut from time to time. I hated the stuff. I always thought it was made with vinegar, but in a Guideposts article by someone raised in Alsace-Lorraine (the German-speaking part of France), the writer describes vast vats of cabbage fermenting with salt. Later I read about kimchi being buried in the ground to ferment. A friend told me that the Vietnamese make something similar from mustard greens. It turns out that fermenting late crops is a simple way to store them as a winter source of vegetables.

I taught ESL at a language school in Dallas for a year. More than half the students were Korean. Whenever I walked into the classroom, there was always a pungent aroma, something like spicy garlic. At a wonderful restaurant in Koreatown, I discovered its source: we were served a dozen varieties of kimchi, many flavors and degrees of hotness. It made its presence known long after the meal was over.

Seven years later, I briefly dated one of my former students. She didn’t like kimchi herself, but she made me a couple of varieties. I kept them in my fridge and nibbled at them over the course of a couple of months. The kimchi lasted longer than the relationship did. (She was an illegal alien and I wasn’t in a position to deal with that.)

Do you have any idea how hamburgers and hot dogs come across to people from other cultures? When you think of them objectively, hot dogs are quite disgusting (ground up meat by-products stuffed into a sausage skin). Hamburgers are greasy and bland, not tasty like the grass-fed beef of other countries. French fries… bleah. Ketchup… yuck.

Maybe that’s why Subway is my default. My wife, on the other hand, is addicted to spicy wings from the Publix deli.

Language, Multiculturality, Translation

High-level translation and paraphrase

Every now and then, I get an assignment of a very high level: interpreting for a public figure or agency leader, translating an important document, interpreting for a multinational fact-finding group. It’s a challenging and exhilarating change from the day-to-day grind.

I was at an event in El Salvador or Colombia a couple of years ago, and saw a familiar booklet lying on a table. When I picked it up, it struck me: I translated that! It had been assigned to the worst translator in my office in about 2006, and I was the one who had to clean it up after she was done. (Anything we produce that will be published, released to the public, or used in court is always edited by a second linguist.) I leafed through it, impressed with how nice it looked and wincing at one or two of the word choices I had made. The booklet is used all over Latin America now.

The document I’m finishing today is a cooperation agreement between agencies in two countries. Fortunately, it’s not written in heavy legalese, but it has been very challenging nonetheless. After it gets reviewed by another translator, it will be ceremoniously signed by representatives of both agencies involved. There will no doubt be some mention in the media overseas.

My name isn’t on the booklet anywhere, nor will it be linked with the international agreement. Translators are usually invisible, unless you happen to interpret for a press conference or get chosen to work the last round of the Miss Universe pageant.

Every time I take on a tough assignment, I’m more aware of the gaps in my language knowledge. I’m more literate and educated than the average American, but there’s a lot I don’t know about finance, business, law, science, engineering, law enforcement, theology, politics, and so forth. If my ability to talk about these things in English is limited, it’s even more so in Spanish!

When you’re doing simultaneous interpretation, you have to come up with the words in the second language immediately. Some of my colleagues will stop and think, trying to recall the right term, and then they miss the next sentence altogether. I’ve discovered, though, that if I understand a concept, I’m good at improvising an explanation and moving on. One time, for instance, the term “plea bargain” came up. I didn’t know the standard Spanish term for it (turns out there isn’t one), so I said, “plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence” and went on. It wasn’t a perfect translation, but it was adequate.

It struck me that I have spent my whole life doing that: improvising or paraphrasing my way around the holes in my vocabulary in one or the other language. My vocabulary has grown tremendously in the last four years; dating and marrying a very articulate Colombian is helpful that way! My Spanish writing and speech are becoming more polished and of a higher register. But invariably, there will be moments when I have to scratch around for vocabulary, and end up improvising.

Colombia, Multiculturality, Music, My life

Welcome to hell, here’s your accordion

Most Americans have a view of accordions shaped no doubt by Lawrence Welk and average polka bands. Gary Larson captured the attitude perfectly in this cartoon:

I, however, associate the accordion with sweet, melancholy music like Mary Black’s No Frontiers. It adds a perfect touch to this song:

In my childhood, most of the accordion music I heard was vallenatos. Some were very catchy, like El Mochuelo. I translated this on my Xanga blog a couple of years ago. (My wife Alicia used to sing choruses for these guys, but she didn’t on this song).

Today on a whim, I looked for Bach on accordion and found this amazing and perfect rendition of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor:

And on the other extreme of the sophistication spectrum, guys my age will remember Weird Al and Another One Rides the Bus:




Colombia, Handyman, Language, Multiculturality, My life

On finding a niche, fitting in, and accent

 Marilyn, in a great post about “Places as possessions,” raised the following questions: “I think a lot of this is about finding our niche. How does our past fit with our present? How can we take the places we’ve loved and the experiences we’ve had and use them in our current reality?”

Finding a niche is tough. Most of the jobs I’ve had (professor of Spanish/English/linguistics; bilingual admin assistant; refugee worker; translator) are a direct outcome of my bilingual/bicultural upbringing. A few of them provided some satisfaction of my desire for meaningful work, but there has always been a longing for more fulfillment. As a professor, I was dissatisfied with my curriculum, my performance, my students’ progress. When I belonged to a Bible translation organization, I worked in training rather than on the front lines, and wondered whether my work made any real difference. Refugee work turned out to include a vast amount of politics, not just helping people who needed help. Working as a translator is frequently tedious and boring.

The most satisfying jobs I have had were in construction. There is nothing quite like framing. You arrive at work in the morning to a bare slab or a raised wood floor. Within a few hours, there are walls standing. Within a few days or weeks (depending on the crew), the entire house is framed, all the way to the rafters! Then begins the fascinating process of sheathing, siding, roofing, wiring, plumbing, a/c, insulation, wallboard, flooring, texturing, painting, trim… When your work is done, you have created a place where a family will live its life.

Interestingly, construction is the one job I’ve had (besides working for a moving company) that doesn’t build on my multicultural background.

Why can’t more jobs be like construction?


Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a TCK with an unusual profile. Alicia has a cousin in Costa Rica who has a veterinary supply company. Her husband is a most interesting character; his father is a Spaniard, so the family spoke Catalán at home, but were prohibited from speaking it outside the house. In public they spoke Costa Rican Spanish. He studied in Chile and lived there a number of years before returning to Costa Rica.

When he visited Barcelona, his cousins laughed at the quaint, archaic Catalán dialect he had learned from his father, who was raised in a remote village. I suspect that this was one of the more frustrating experiences in his life, because according to his own admission, he grew up obsessed with fitting in. In Costa Rica he passed as a Tico; in Chile he passed as a Chilean. But in Spain he sounded like a hick.

As we compared stories and worldviews, he grew more and more animated. He talked excitedly about how I could see the world as he did, the flexibility a multicultural upbringing creates and requires, his passion for fitting in.

In listening to him, it struck me that fitting in was never in the realm of possibility for me. I was always bigger, whiter, more blue-eyed than others around me in Colombia. Besides that, I was an introvert by nature. I’ve never fully fit in anywhere.

But I did make sure my Spanish was as good as it could be. My family set a high value on language skills. We spoke better Spanish than most of our fellow missionaries and MKs, and picked up the paisa accent used in Medellín.


When I got to college (University of Kansas), my Spanish profs had trouble understanding my thick regional accent, so I switched to more neutral pronunciation. In grad school, I went home for six months to work on my thesis, and quickly adopted the paisa accent even stronger than before. But when my tourist visa expired after three months, I made a trip to Pasto (to cross the border into Ecuador), and was startled to hear myself talking like a pastuso after just one day. Maybe it’s because that’s where I first learned to talk.

I spent a year in the mid-80s working with refugees in Honduras, and learned to say cipote (‘kid’) and vaya pues (‘okay’). The next year I got married and moved to Miami, and worked with Cubans for a couple of years. In the early 90s I moved my family to Costa Rica, where we lived for four years. When I made a trip to Medellín, my old friend Oscar said, “Where have you been living? Your Spanish sounds so ugly!”

In 1998 I got a job in Dallas as a translator. The vast majority of the work involved Mexican Spanish. It was a steep learning curve, but within a few years I picked it up, to the point that when I visited Cartagena (Colombia) in 2008, a taxi driver said I was obviously from Mexico.

Then in 2010 I met Alicia and my life changed forever. I’m back to speaking Colombian Spanish, with a far better vocabulary than I ever had before. In Tampa we interact with Colombians, Venezuelans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans… even a few Mexicans.

My exposure to so many different accents and dialects has been very helpful in my job. But I identify most with Colombian Spanish, especially the paisa accent.

Interestingly, my English doesn’t change much at all, no matter where I live. I wonder why that is.