A knock on the front door awoke me from a nap one afternoon. I drowsily opened the door to find a French teacher from my middle school. She had a book in her hand.
“I just bought an engine,” she said. “Can you translate some of this English book into Malagasy for me?”
The book was titled, “Diesel Engine – Single Cylinder Family.” Its first half was in Chinese and the second in English. In the back were diagrams elaborating all the parts of a diesel engine with numbers and words like “oil wells,” “fuel injectors,” and “ducts.” The French teacher wanted me to translate the book’s engine maintenance chapter for her.
“Why do you have an engine?” I said. “Did you buy a car?”
No, she said. She was the new owner of an industrial-sized, diesel-powered winnow machine. Pour the rice into its top and winnowed rice comes out its side. I was unaware such machines existed.
For the next half hour I sat on my porch and translated very technical English into very rudimentary Malagasy. At this point in my linguistic endeavors I still didn’t know the Malagasy word for “old.” “Adjust” in English became “look at” in Malagasy, “unscrew” became “take,” and “disassemble” became “the opposite of putting together.”
At the end the French teacher thanked me and said she’d help me with my French if I ever asked. I went back into my home and shook my head smiling. It’s both flattering and misdirected that my fellow townspeople regard me as a sage of wisdom. Had the French teacher known that in America I didn’t know how to replace my car’s windshield wiper fluid, she wouldn’t have come to me with diesel engine questions.