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STORY: David Stringer
PHOTOGRAPHY: Cheri Smith, Marilyn Indahl, David Stringer, and Jianwen Fang

Found in Translation

The 20K Road Race in cycling was run in four groups. Group 1 included all the women in the 5 age brackets, Group 2 men aged 50-59 and 60+. These two groups started one minute apart on the 9 lap course. Group 3, starting after the earlier race had finished, had men 16-29 and 30-39, and Group 4, ages 40-49 and the largest at 26, started a minute after Group 3.

The main story, of course, was these very well-organized and highly competitive races, run under the bright sun at beautiful Springbank Park along the River Thames. But the story I pursued was a different one: a story of lost bikes, borrowed equipment, and translation.

I'd heard that some members of the Italian team had their bicycles lost or stolen. Determined to track down that story, I stopped a man wearing an "Italia" shirt, but unfortunately he spoke no English, which was precisely the amount of Italian that I spoke. My sign language did not help, but an English cyclist named John Batty happened by. Both he and the Italian man spoke French, and after a brief conversation of which I understood not a word, Batty explained that the missing bikes belonged to the Spanish team, not the Italians. He also told me that he received a kidney 7 years ago from his dad and was at the games to compete in cycling, swimming, and the 5K walk. He spoke French, English and German.

The racers speeding around the track had thinned out enough so that I was able to cross to where some of the Spanish team was gathered in the shade of a tree.

I caught the attention of Raquel Garcia, girlfriend of a team member. I'd been told Raquel had resolved the problem of the Spanish bikes. In halting English she told me that six bikes had been lost, not stolen. At this point all that remained of my three years of high school Spanish was "si" and "gracias." But I did manage to learn that one person was not able to ride and that another rode wearing a borrowed shirt from Argentina because his had been lost with his backpack. His name may or may not have been Alberto Hernandez, and he won a bronze medal racing in his underwear. Pitching in to help with the translations was Paula Juliana Berrio, a Columbian who was working with the team as a translator. These two were joined by a third woman, Gloria Poveda, the wife of a rider who would borrow a bike from an American for the second wave of races.

I moved back across the track where the cyclists appeared to be riding faster as the race progressed. I immediately met Peter Stoetzer, the 63 year old team manager from Germany who was also competing in swimming and a variety of athletic events. He had received a new kidney 16 1/2 years ago after spending 4 1/2 years on dialysis.

I asked him about problems of translation with the German team, and he said they were minimal - all but two on the team had satisfactory English. Most people at the World Games were well educated, and the Germans all studied English in school. Stoetzer himself was fluent in French, English and German. I never felt more American.

I next bumped into three volunteers, Brigette Gagne and Heather MacLeod from Ontario and Martin Bell from England. Brigitte, who appeared to speak with a French accent, was hosting the team from Norway. She spoke no Norwegian but said it did not matter because they all spoke English. I told them the story of the missing Spanish bicycles, and Martin pointed out, "People here are sharing organs, so sharing a bicycle should be nothing."

A man wearing an Argentinian shirt caught my attention, and I tried to ask him who on his team had loaned a shirt to the Spanish cyclist. He, of course, did not understand my question, and he returned to his heated conversation with another man in one of the many languages I have not learned. Then my Spanish translators appeared, and after a brief exchange in Spanish explained to me that the man in the Argentinian shirt was, in fact, a Spaniard named Mikel Petrina wearing a borrowed shirt along with socks borrowed from a teammate. There was something else about shoes that I did not understand (he was wearing none). The man with whom he had been speaking was Italian, and the language they used between them was a hybrid of Spanish and Italian. We all laughed. No problema.

I needed to speak with a fellow American. The man I approached was Bill Wohl, from Scottsdale, Arizona, who assured me that the heat in London was no problem for him because it was 119 dedgrees when he left home. Nevertheless, he was perspiring heavily, having just finished his race. He told me that he had loaned his Trek bike and his shoes to a member of the Spanish team. I asked if he knew the man's name and he said he did not, but he pointed out the man's wife, Gloria Poveda, whom I had just met. Bill praised the quality of his bike, but what he really wanted to talk about was his heart donor, the actor Brady Michaels who had died in February of 2000 just when his career was taking off. Bill explained that he had had three hearts, one of them a 400-pound artificial heart that he was on for 6 months. I asked him if he knew enough Spanish to communicate with the man to whom he loaned his expensive bike.

"Un poquito."

It does not surprise me that trust and generosity run deeply at Transplant Games.

Frenchman Bertrand Corcuff then approached me to ask me if I would interview him. He wanted to be sure that I spoke with some French people. I learned that he was there in support of his sister, who had received a liver at age 3 in 1987 and was here to compete in swimming. Bertrand, who speaks English and German as well as French, offered to help me translate if we saw each other later in the games. As I was thanking him, an announcement over the public address system requested someone to translate French into English, and Bertrand quickly moved to offer assistance.

I also met a fellow journalist, from the Netherlands, Herman Vuijsje, who was in London covering the games for a publication at home. We shared a few stories in English, he spoke Dutch to a passer-by, and he mentioned that he is also fluent in German and French. He showed me his business card which features frogs, of which he is fond, and a saying in French. He asked me to read the French aloud, which I of course could not do. I asked him to translate. He said that the French makes no sense at all, but when pronounced properly it sounds like the noise made by a frog, of which he is very very fond.

As we were telling our stories of the games, he summarized, "Organ donation is a perfect metaphor for global ethics." I translate that to mean that the world could use a lot more of the spirit of generosity and sportsmanship so evident here in London.

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Last updated on: Friday, 05-Feb-2010 10:11:56 EST