Washington – “You met, and then?” people say when they ask how my husband, Nico, and I got together.
“And then,” Nico says, somewhat embarrassed: “Google Translate.”
We met in 2010 at a hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I was reporting on the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that year. He, a UN peacekeeper from France who spoke practically no English, and I, an American with equal amounts of French, communicated with a lot of pantomime. But once we’d started “talking”, we stuck close by each other, him leading me across the lobby by the hand at one point. We kissed that night.
I woke up early the next morning to an email from him. “Hey Miss!” Nico’s words, suddenly prolific, greeted me. “How are you? For me, it was a magic evening, magic moment, magic woman.”
Google’s translations are not perfect. In that first missive, Nico complimented me heartily on my “hornbeam,” which for some reason the software was giving him as a synonym for “charm.” And he expressed frustration, at times comically, about not being able to shower me with “lovely words” the night before.
When he stole away to my hotel again a couple of nights later, I knew, thanks to dozens of additional emails and text messages sent in the interim, that he was driven there as much by emotion as by desire.
I was no prude, as a sexually active single gal. But as a standing policy, I did not sleep with strangers. I slept with Nico that night because, thanks to those Google-assisted communications, he didn’t feel like one.
And so, the next day, I was gut-punched by the email I received. “I’m glad to have could to see you. It was very sweet and ardor this night. I like the contact with your skin.” But also: “I don’t think I see you again. I don’t think this is a good idea to stay in touch.”
My mouth went dry. My instincts and his ardent transliterations had removed my usual reservations about one-night stands – and look where it had gotten me.
I wrote back, calling him a swear word.
He responded immediately. The swear word “in google translate is not very good word!” he said, alarmed. “I want see you again, I want talk with you again… It’s not the problem!”
The problem, several subsequent messages made clear, was that he had almost been caught absconding from his unit’s camp, which visiting French soldiers like himself were forbidden to leave except on business. He’d endangered his career and put anyone who’d seen him doing so in an awkward position. He couldn’t come to my hotel again.
Of course, that’s not what “stay in touch” means. Nuance!
With the help of algorithms, no matter how clumsy, what could have been a fleeting hookup became a long-distance relationship. After I went home to San Francisco and he returned to France, we sent countless, constant emails. English was our official language; he was dying to learn it.
Any day we could find the time, we both logged on to a video chat. After smiling at each other and typing our hellos, I would write a topical sentence: I had a meeting at work today. Or: I’m not sure if I want to have kids.
I’d watch his eyes move from one browser window to another on his screen as he copied the sentence from the chat, pasted it into Translate and hit enter. It was the Translate window he responded to, not my face directly, as he read what I had written, saying “ah” or laughing or frowning. Then he would glance at me to repeat whatever face he’d just made, with eye contact this time, before turning back to Translate to type his response in French, get the translation, copy and paste it into the chat window, and hit send. And I would read that.
We did this for hours at a time, over many months, with translations sometimes so garbled they raised more questions than they answered.
Nico, once: “Be careful it’s of rhetoric! Lol.”
Nico, another time: “My apartment is a whorehouse.”
That one took us quite a few minutes to figure out. In French, “bordel” does mean “whorehouse”; the expression “C’est un bordel,” though, means “It’s a mess.”
Google Translate was still easier than the truly old-fashioned way by a mile – or roughly 6,000 miles, in this case. Imagine doing what we were doing with a dictionary: flipping the pages for every word, conjugating verbs. Could we have exhaustively pieced together our interactions with phrasebooks? Sure, though we might have been less likely to stick with it.
Despite the modern tools at our disposal, this nascent relationship still didn’t seem practical. Our friends were flummoxed. But our chats kept Nico in my life in a manageable way, somewhat predictable and scheduled. We got to know each other slowly. And that may have been for the best: At the time, I was struggling with an emotional disorder. Between depressive symptoms and an intense career, I was already juggling more than I could handle. Our distance, though painful, felt safe.
With each email and chat session, our divide narrowed. Immersed in computer-generated English, Nico started to pick up the language.
Him: “My English is very bad this evening!!! SUCKS! (like this?)”
Me: “Your use of ‘sucks’ was perfect.”
Him (signing off): “Stay contact every day every time. . . .”
Seven months after we met in Haiti, we finally saw each other in person again, in a rendezvous arranged, obviously, over chat and email. He could speak enough for us to have simple conversations over dinner. He knew so much more English than the first time we’d met. All learned from our interactions. All translated by Google.
The process continued, and his English kept improving. A year and a half after chancing into each other at that Port-au-Prince hotel, Nico and I moved in together in San Francisco. A few months later, we got married.
The more we talked, the more we confirmed that we were as in love as we’d thought from that first, pantomime-heavy interaction. Translations had validated our gut feelings.
Since then, our relationship and communication – as well as my mental health – have continued to strengthen.
This year, Google released a newer, faster smartphone app that can translate spoken language and pictures of foreign text. Early reviewers report that there are still a lot of mistakes.
But the software is likely to get better with time. Even the older method of translating by typing text into computers was advanced enough to make our union possible.
Less than a year after our wedding, Google drastically altered our lives again, when a Google employee bought the house where we rented our basement apartment. She came downstairs one night and informed us that we would be evicted.
I’d lived in the rent-controlled apartment for five years. I was devastated and bitter. Google giveth, and Google taketh away.
Not everything, though. I still had my deep and abiding love, the joy and most cherished treasure of my life: my husband. And he had something, thanks to our diligence and patience and, yes, Google, that could never be taken. He used his English to comfort me, and to help make plans for moving forward, in words we both could understand.
* Mac McClelland writes about her relationship in “Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story.”