A Little Learning
“Learn English with 1,000 words!” “Phrasebook for all possible situations!” “Electronic dictionary with 300,000 entries!” These phrases may at first look set to do translators, interpreters and language teachers out of a job, but fear not.
In my country of residence it is all too common to see a glaring need for translators being ignored to the potential client’s peril, restaurant menus being the most famous and hilarious example. But more of that later. Then there are the businesspeople who are content to slip a phrasebook in their pocket before boarding their plane.
And why not? The phrasebook has phrases for “all possible situations”, right? Take the shop:
“Have you got this in blue/pink/purple/red etc.?”
Well, let’s see. Firstly, travelling men never go shopping for clothes, be it on business or holiday trips. And women never say “purple”. They say “maroon”, “burgundy” or “mauve”.
But then admittedly there are more practical situations:
“Could you tell me the way to the bank/police station/hospital/crematorium?”
There is a rising sense of anxiety as we imagine our unlucky tourist’s predicament:
“I’d like to speak to the guide/the manager/a doctor/a lawyer.”
“Do you have vitamin pills/aspirins/plasters/antibiotics/bandages/the day after pill?”
We can feel our hapless tourist’s panic rising as they find themselves forced to ask:
“Have you seen my briefcase/keys/wallet/passport/insulin/medical insurance documents/friend?”
The tension mounts:
“Could you help me with this form/stain/lock/witness report/wound?”
On flipping through the book on the plane, our traveller has an uneasy sensation of foreboding as they read:
“I wonder if you could show me on the map/menu/suspects’ photos/X-ray/missing persons’ list?”
And then there is the lack of tenses. Rather than asking “Is that my train?” they may well need to ask “Was that my train?”, “Is that my train leaving?” or “Is my train going to leave?”. As for British train announcers, they may as well be speaking from the bottom of a swimming pool so forget listening out for “Platform 4 at 8:15” and be prepared for a Glaswegian rendition of “Signal failure at Watford Gap”, “Snow on the line at Wolverhampton” or “the driver felt poorly on changing at Reading and is catching forty winks”.
And we cannot forget the eternal cultural trap. These guidebooks should prepare our beleaguered tourist to answer such apparently simple questions as “What are you looking at?”, particularly when uttered by a punk rocker sporting a green Mohican and padlock through his nose on a Friday night. A Greek student once created quite a scene in a fast-food restaurant in Manchester by answering this question quite honestly. (“I’m looking at you.”)
Our innocent Greek friend was clearly unaware of the importance of intonation, another failing of many phrasebooks. They need to explain the huge gap between the sarcastic and polite intonations of “Excuse ME!”, “Do you MIND?” or “Thanks a LOT, pal”. (The reply to the latter could well be provided by that famous sign in a Moscow hotel: “If this is your first visit to Moscow, you’re welcome to it.”)
Or how about simply warning them not to speak at all in certain situations? In Spain, it is common to bark a cheery “Hola!” to everyone in general on entering an elevator, then bid all your fleeting friends farewell on departing. In Harrods this would probably lead to the security guards being called.
And what is the point of including the phrase “Do you speak English?” if the conversation ends there. Our tourist would do as well to ask “Do I speak English?” to seek confirmation.
Talking of which, CD/DVD crash courses in languages are another source of false security for our cheapskate business travellers. Whilst a thousand word vocabulary may well top the average local lexis in certain areas of London or New York (where, as Jackie Mason once said, “anyone who speaks good English must be a foreigner”), the pitfalls are obvious. There was the Catalan businessman who, on being asked about his daily routine, nonchalantly rattled off:
“The first thing I do every morning is get up my wife.”
That was a little more information than I needed, thank you VERY much (sarcastic intonation). Such subtle changes in word order may be vital. Watch the faces light up at the airport ticket office when you ask if there are any “free seats” on the next flight. And a little learning was certainly not enough for staff at an airline ticket office in Copenhagen: “We take your bags and send them in all directions.”
Added to this, there are the cultural implications of vocabulary that such courses omit to mention. If you tell most Anglo-Saxons that you’ll “meet for dinner” and turn up at 10 pm as in Spain, your hosts will not be pleased.
So our monolingual traveller may decide to put their trust in an electronic dictionary. Today many claim to translate entire sentences, paragraphs and even pages of text. Thus we find phrases such as this one produced by one of the world’s most famous and successful Internet companies:
“Pozo, recibí espalda por encima del ojo rojo” (Well (meaning water well), I got (received) back (part of the body) on the red eye (literally on top of the red eye).
I know of a jet-lagged, harried translator who unwisely decided to shove a whole job through a web translator with the intention of “smoothing out the wrinkles” afterwards. Unfortunately, he overlooked the bibliography at the end and thus the text (which was – gasp – sent on to the client without proofreading), was full of such colourful names as “Mr. Apple Tree (Manzano), Miss Orange Tree (Naranjo) and Mrs. Of the Forest (Del Bosque). It would have sounded like the electoral roll for Hobbiton if not for the incongruous Mr. Brake Shoe (Zapata) and the worrying Miss Bald (Calvo).
Then there is the photo of a Chinese restaurant that spent the time, energy and money on producing the following classy sign above its premises: “Translate Server Error”. Pretty clear where they got that translation from, and too bad for them that they didn’t bother forking out a couple of extra Yuan for a proper translator.
Clearly, when using an electronic or online dictionary, one must know how to use a dictionary in the first place. I daresay that even translations in the past would not have been helped with the gadget, judging by some of the most famous historical blunders, some of which are even to be found in the world’s best-selling book of all time. Most people know by now that the famous camel through the eye of the needle was not a camel at all, but a cable. So if professional translators are fallible, we cannot expect the typical restaurant owner to do a good job of menus. Hence, countries that thrive on tourism really should take translation and language education more seriously if they are to avoid these gems:
Our wines leave you nothing to hope for. (Switzerland)
Salad a firm's own make; limpid red beer soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people's fashion. (No wonder they make such a racket in the kitchens.) - Poland.
Special today: no ice cream. (Well, yes, that’s special I suppose.) – Switzerland.
Coming (= “Entrantes”. Meaning “Starter/First Course”). I can see our tired tourist looking at their watch and asking the waiter: “Is my dish Coming?” – Spain.
Dark Thorns (“Pinchos Morunos” = skewers of meat) - Spain.
Special cocktail for the ladies with nuts. - Japan.
Wide openings with olives. (= “Boquerones”, vinegar-marinated anchovies) - Spain
The manager has personally passed all the water served here. - Mexico.
The same goes for hotel owners:
In case of fire, alarm the doorman. - Austria
If you are unable to leave the room, expose yourself in the window. - Finland
Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the
hours of 9 & 11 am daily. – Greece
Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar. – Norway.
Please leave your values at the front desk. - France
You may be thinking that this only occurs with small family-run businesses, but you’d be shockingly mistaken.
A little while ago I was leafing through the glossy brochure of a famous five-star hotel in my city and was aghast at seeing simple spelling and vocabulary mistakes.
The cheapest rooms at this hotel in question go for a little under 500 euros a night. So obviously, they’d be prepared to shell out 50 euros to get their advertising properly translated, right? Wrong. They were quite content to sound like Almodovar at the Oscars ceremony and be laughed at by their own potential international customers. I sounded them out, and eventually even corrected it for them for free as a sign of good will and in the hope of future work. They haven’t called back. And their advertising still sounds like a Spanish Inspector Clouseau.
Whilst we may find these language faults embarrassingly funny, it is a serious matter when big business honestly believes that with an electronic dictionary, crash course or phrasebook they can do without a translator, interpreter or teacher.
Spain receives nearly double its population every year in foreign tourists, yet the government (both national and regional) still provides tourist information to make you chuckle: “Old mosque. Actually, it is a church.” (Well make your mind up.)
It is incredible to think that a business venture can go blindly ahead without pausing to think if what they are telling their customers is correct. There was the case of the Pope’s visit to the USA, for which a Miami T-shirt company printed a whole line saying “Yo vi la papa.” (“I saw the potato”). A famous car manufacturer wondered why its Nova line of cars were causing such perplexity in South America, apparently unaware that “No va” means “it doesn’t go” in Spanish. And this was seen on an expensive-looking sign above a certain establishment’s doorway in the UK just this summer: XXXX welcomes football fans of the world - Willkommen fussball-VENTILATOREN der welt.
So it would seem to be a global problem at a moment in human history when we are becoming a truly global race in need of communication, Proz itself being an example of this with some “new” words and expressions being coined every day to earn some Kudoz. Incidentally, I wonder how long some of these words will take to find their way into official dictionaries.
Possibly the first to pick up on them will be the most famous English dictionary, printed by a famous UK university press. In order for a new word to find its way in here, media research and surveys are carried out to see if the word is truly used or not. And it goes in there whether we like it or not. This to me makes perfect sense; I certainly want a dictionary to have all the slang I hear on the street every day as well as the latest advances in genetic engineering. Other countries have a National/Royal Academy, a group of select boffins who decide whether a new word should go in their beloved dictionary or not, and thus form part of the officially recognised language. Hence, though every French citizen knows that “le footing” means jogging, it is not to be found in the official dictionary, possibly also because the tome takes 30-50 years to be renewed. But there may of course be other cultural reasons for not permitting such a word into the official language. Though that’s a whole different article.
Let’s face it, trusting a dictionary, CD or phrasebook alone instead of a translator who makes their living out of languages, for all the reasons above, is never going to work. No amount of technology will ever replace them. The danger of paying no heed to this is perhaps best shown with some more vivid examples:
In a Bangkok temple: “It is forbidden to enter a woman even a foreigner if dressed like a man.”
In a laundry in Rome: “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.”
And the one that beats all, and no doubt scares off most tourists:
An ad for donkey rides in Thailand: “Would you like to ride your own ass?”
No, I would certainly not, with the most indignant intonation I can muster. That’s another few baht lost for one budding Thai businessman.