Perks of being a polyglot

Yesterday I had one of those “once in a a lifetime” opportunities, thanks to my wife who dragged me to a presentation hosted by the University of North Carolina. The presentation by Dr. Eduardo Torres Cuevas, titled “Preserving Cuba’s Cultural Heritage in the 21st Century” attracted a small gathering, apparently mostly made up of UNC staff and students who are currently enrolled in one of their languages courses. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it, but being the supportive husband that I am, I signed off from work a bit earlier and together with our 2 kids we drove to the main campus.

The entire lecture was done in Spanish while a translator tried her best to keep up with Dr. Cuevas' detailed and humored style of prose, as he told us about the history behind Cuba’s National Library. I must tell you, being a “real time” translator is not an easy task, and though Dr. Cuevas tried to slow things down so she could do her job in a timely fashion, she still had to summarize a lot of what was being said in order to keep up with him. Sadly, a lot of the “good stuff” was never mentioned and/or was completely lost in translation.

Dr. Cuevas was an excellent speaker and was able to quickly put everyone at ease right away and transport us to the Havana of the 1950s. The entire lecture lasted approximately 50 minutes but in reality it felt more like a small fraction of that! I could tell that he is extremely passionate about preserving the Cuban cultural heritage for posterity, and together with a strong character and charisma, I dare say that everyone in attendance was completely captivated by his stories as if in a trance.

Now, let me remind you of one minor detail I mentioned early on that you may have overlooked: everything was in Spanish, a language which though not completely unfamiliar to me, is not my first or second language in order of fluency (Brazilian Portuguese and English in this order if you’re wondering what my first and second languages are). Sure, there was a translator, but after the first 3 minutes I completely ignored her voice and focused completely on Dr. Cuevas. Eventually, the translator’s voice became white noise or just an annoyance, as we would have to stop the flow of the lecture in order for her to turn beautiful story telling-style prose to a short. almost. dry. list. of. facts. and. numbers!

I feel extremely lucky that I was able to not only meet but hear someone who may be a very important person in the history of Cuba. I also feel extremely lucky that I was able to follow and understand the entire presentation in the “original format” without the need for “caption” or any other aid. Had I relied solely on translations, I would have never really gotten all the little jokes, nuances and true meaning behind the words uttered by the gentleman from Havana… and most likely would not feel this great urge I now feel to make Cuba, and specially the National Library of Cuba, my choice for the next time I go anywhere outside the States for vacation!

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