Google translate and the miracle baby

Mr Sotha

Mr Sothy and I were a perfect match. We misunderstood each other in perfect balance – thanks to some technological randomness from Google translate.

Most people have one or two tuk-tuk stories and in my case I feel the collective of tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap make a huge and posotive difference to the visitor’s experience of Cambodia. Recently I met a treasure of a tuk-tuk driver, Mr Sothy, who waited for me patiently while I was processed in the arrivals lounge out at the airport. I was late joining a queue and got beaten to the line by a tour party that had just arrived from Korea. My flight was late as it was and outside Mr Sothy must have waited at least two hours for me, and without complaint. If I was him I’d have been fuming.

To make amends I asked him if he’d be my regular driver over the next three weeks, and over that time our friendship grew, and so did our level of organisation. Each evening we planned the excursions for the next day; trying to streamline the pick-ups and deliveries we each needed to make around town.  Just getting things like photos developed, or getting business cards printed involved trips here and there

MR SOTHY AND ME

That’s Mr Sothy and me. Wonderful driver – this day we were sampling mango smoothies at Blue Pumpkin.

My Khmer is hopeless – I can say thank you, and I know several of the food groups such as chicken, fish or pork – but with languages I’m put in the shade by my wife who can speak in English, Finnish, Cantonese and can get around Italy and France with some of the dignity that cloth-eared tourists like me don’t deserve. For his part, Mr Sothy is still learning English, and on many occasions we’d draw maps in the dust – to explain where we were heading.

Though wait. Mr Sothy had Google translate, and phrase by phrase we were able to work most things out. He proved an amazing detective who helped me find lost friends when I had few if any leads. We both enjoyed such quests.  Google translate really was remarkable.

But one day, Mr Sothy was visibly ill.  “What’s the matter?” I asked his smart phone. He waited for the translation and then spoke back into his Samsung mobile. He showed me the translation which reported bluntly: “I am heavily pregnant and I need to go to hospital.”

Sensing the arrival of a miracle child, I urged Mr Sothy to head to the nearest medical centre a block away.  We drove there. He parked the tuk-tuk and in visible pain entered the small medical unit. A number of patients lay in a ward that opened up to the street.  In a consulting room a small child howled and shrieked: she was getting a needle for some infection – and she wasn’t happy. Her stoic parents held her hands but to little avail.

Presently Mr Sothy was examined and found (to our relief) that there was no baby on the way – but there was severe stomach pain.  The medical staff gave him some medication and had him lie down for 15 minutes.  All the while the small child continued to put up a fight against all medical treatment with her piercing, yowling screams.

Still, in that quarter-hour the tuk-tuk driver felt some relief, and when he stood up once more he was given a prescription of various tablets and capsules. He had no money on him, or not enough, and I felt that in view of his patience at the airport it would be only right for me to pay the medical centre. So we paid up, then bumped our plans back 24 hours and agreed to meet next morning if Mr Sothy felt up to it.

He was in fine health from the next day onward and we treated Google translate with a slice of caution after that. I really enjoyed his company.

How did Google developed translation from Khmer to English?  The work goes back to 2012 – when they employed sheer computational horsepower to the task – comparing Khmer text to English version of the same web pages. Actual translators were not employed. see this backgrounder from the Voice of America – how-google-figured-out khmer-translation  

Click here: for a crash course in Cambodian Motorbike safety.

Got a tuk-tuk story or a Google Translate story? I’d love to hear about it it.

Shades of Grey. A Before and After in Lolei Village

Lolei Village is very near Savong’s School in terms of distance from Siem Reap, but is located further North; over the road as it were, with Number 6 Highway cutting its dangerous swathe between Lolei and the Rolous temples of Bakong.

In the heart of the village is the home of teacher Sovannarith who now runs a school of his own, dedicated to teaching English and computer skills to the children of his village. He used to teach at Savong’s School, right back in the days when salaries were a competitive $US45 a month and computer education was not even feasible.

Sovannarith and me

The “before” shot. Some 12 years ago – 2007 – we took this photo in a freshly painted classroom at Savong’s School. Sovannarith hasn’t changed, but since then my hair has adopted a Paul Newman silver.

After teaching at Savong’s School for several years, while he studied hard to complete his arts degree from the internationally recognised Pannasastra University of Cambodia, Sovannarith harbored dreams of running his own school. He wanted something for his own community.  I was keen to see what he had achieved since 2011.

Actually since 2005 I had already been familiar with the local school situation in Lolei thanks to the great work of Schools for Children of Cambodia (SCC), a registered and well-run charity from the UK that focuses on the rural children of Siem Reap province. Like us, I’m sure they must constantly explain that despite the boom town quality of Siem Reap, the rural areas are still desperately poor.  One of the original schools they supported, back in 2005, was in Lolei Village.

Alas and through no fault of SCC the arrangement didn’t work out, and rather than run the school in their prescribed way the then headmaster had a seriously divergent view of how the school ought to run. SCC walked, and soon put their hard earned funds to better use elsewhere. They continue to excellent work.

But from that story, told to me by members of the SCC, I was always aware that Sovannarith’s village had an educational gap whereby the local State School still provided inadequate teaching of English (and computer skills) to children who need both if they wish to proceed into salaried employment or further tertiary education.

Enter Sovannarith who set up Angkor Legacy Academy in April 2011. It is a vibrant place, with high quality volunteers (the one’s I met were a quantum leap from the gangling gap-year ‘Facebook Volunteers’ who often visit these organisations.) and a well equipped computer lab with late-model laptops.  The vibe was happy, busy and thriving.

dsc_0699

The “After” shot. 2019. I turned up unannounced at Sovannarith’s school in Lolei and Rith strode up to the tuk tuk as I alighted – “Greetings stranger!” he announced. “Long time no see!” Comparing the photos, I wonder if he was referring to our mutual need for glasses.

Sovannarith made me feel very welcome, and during our brief chat (I was on the way to Savong’s School,) we reflected on times past. Sovannarith hasn’t changed one bit.  He is still passionate about educating the children of rural Cambodia. But he was kind enough also to say that his time at Savong’s School was what got him started – we gave him a teaching job and in those years he learned a lot about running a classroom and running a school. “Without that experience I wouldn’t be here today running the Angkor Legacy Academy,” he told me.

That made me feel very gratified. In 2004 when we commenced plans to build a school in Bakong, Savong and I never dreamed that his school would help multiply the number of teachers and schools. I can count 9 schools that began in a similar fashion to Sovannarith’s project and owe their start to Savong’s initial vision. If anything, that is the major achievement of the project. I think SCC and other organisations can also claim similar influence.  As I’ve found in business, losing good staff can be sad – but seeing them succeed is a wonderful thing.

Links:

Schools For Cambodian Children

Angkor Legacy Academy

For more on this theme:

Back to school. 2019.

The Great Divide: Life of a Teacher