Jennifer Cheng

Siya the translator told me on the first day we met that he played chess competitively. He said he’s a chess teacher and even occasionally competes in speed chess — but that, we decided, is not really chess. We agreed the game should be played in a slow, thoughtful manner.

On the first day in Grahamstown, I was still a little nervous about how I could become friends with the translators. The chess board took care of that, dissolving any concerns about language and cultural barriers.

In the first round, I played against Sanele, another translator; he’d learned to play chess from Siya. Sanele and I spent much time furrowing our brows while staring at the board, deciding on the best strategy. Each thoughtful move that Sanele made led, eventually, to an embarrassing defeat for me.

In our second round, my classmate Nate, who had been a spectator so far, joined me. We hoped putting two brains together would spell a comeback. It made no difference, and the second victory for Sanele was just as easy as the first. Each time we made a foolish move, Siya would advise us on stronger alternatives. We ended the embarrassment with Siya, being the good teacher that he is, showing us the six basic moves to ensure a strong start.

Nate and I bonded with our translators over an international game where rules don’t need translation. It was the first of many lessons we would learn from our translators, who were patient enough to kindly correct our mistakes and laugh with us as we struggled to learn.