Chances are you have a favorite horror story of linguistic incompetence while an innocent abroad. Consider the novice who naively admitted in Spanish, "estoy embarazada." He was embarrassed all right--because he had confessed to being pregnant.
Now imagine you are a foreign visitor or resident of Ventura County who does not speak English. If you fall ill or have a brush with the law, you could be risking more than embarrassment with a language blunder. But thanks to volunteers who translate and interpret in 30 languages for the Language Bank in Camarillo, the county is a little bit less likely to become a modern-day Babel.
The nonprofit Language Bank was established 15 years ago as a community service by the Camarillo branch of the American Assn. of University Women. But volunteers do not have to be members of the association, said Virginia Dunnion, a senior citizen who has coordinated the bank's referral services for more than three years.
"We receive an average of two calls a week. And sometimes they ask for someone to go to court," Dunnion said. "About one-third or one-half of our 30 volunteers are seniors. Many are retired residents of Leisure Village," she added.
Most calls, Dunnion said, come from social service agencies and involve an emergency.
Stella Ling of Somis, a court interpreter for the state, started translating 20 years ago and has been volunteering for the Language Bank since the organization was founded.
"In the beginning I was . . . helping refugees to get their feet on the ground," Ling said. "And several times I would get calls from a school principal to help a child who was disoriented."
Ling said her most extreme case came about 16 years ago, when she was summoned to Camarillo State Hospital.
"Back then a person could be involuntarily committed," she said. "And I found a very distraught young lady who had arrived as the mail-order bride of an elderly gentleman. But apparently the man's nephew felt his inheritance was threatened. So he had the woman locked up for arguing or a similar excuse."
Ling said the woman was not psychotic, just frightened. And once Ling clarified the problem and showed the woman how to dial a pay phone, she called a friend in Los Angeles and was discharged.
Like most of the volunteers, Josette Dietrich, 66, was recruited by Dunnion. Dietrich was born in Switzerland, but has lived in the United States for 40 years. Since moving to Leisure Village nearly three years ago, she has eased communications in French, German and Swiss-German.
"Very often I am asked to translate over the telephone," Dietrich said. "But my biggest challenge was to translate and write many letters for a man who was seeking medical advice from specialists in Germany."
Aaron Bonderman, an 82-year-old county resident who immigrated from the Ukraine in 1927, last year put some of his Russian skills to work for the Language Bank.
"I translated a series of letters between a young American couple and a newly discovered cousin planning to visit from Russia. And some scribbled letters for another person contained interesting allusions to the crumbling situation in the Soviet Union," Bonderman said.
"Our translation work would be very easy," Bonderman said, "if people would only write nicely."
* WHERE AND WHEN
The American Assn. of University Women Language Bank in Camarillo is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. To request or offer translation services, call (805) 484-1238.
NEW YEAR, NEW WORDS
Here's a survey of New Year's greetings, compiled with the help of the Language Bank. If you cover the right-hand column, you can test your polyglot IQ by matching salutations to mother tongues. (Remember too that this isn't the appropriate time of year for all these greetings. In 1992 A.D., the Chinese New Year falls on Feb. 4, the Hebrew New Year on Sept. 28.) Buon Anno: (Italian) Chronia Pola: (Greek) Gung Hei Fat Choi: (Chinese--Cantonese dialect) Bonne Annee: (French) At Manigong Bagong Taon: (Tagalog) Gutes Neujahr: (German) Yeni Yiliniz Kutlu Olsun: (Turkish) Shanah Tovah: (Hebrew) Prospero Ano Nuevo: (Spanish) S Novim Godom: (Russian)