Lost in Translation
I would like to dedicate this post to Walter.
Some time ago, I wrote a post that introduced a Spanglish dictionary I compiled of the ‘niquismos’ (nicaraguanisms) that found their way into daily conversation over the time I spent in Central America. Being an Anglophone in Madagascar is a double challenge, because you have both the French and Malagasy language barriers. However, similar to life in Nicaragua, ex-pats tend to have a dialect unto themselves. You mix languages and slang and, my personal favourite, just generally butcher proper speech with a horrendous accent, not because you can’t pronounce the sounds, but because you’re just plain lazy. I am sure one of these days I’ll update the dictionary to make it multi-lingual and then you’ll all be really impressed. Rightly so; it’s a pretty neat trick, this language business. Today, however, I want to focus less on vocabulary and more on the advanced translation component.
Let me first get out all the appropriate provisos, caveats, and qualifications. I know first-hand that learning a new language takes guts. I remember talking with a Korean friend who once made the point that she felt that people assumed she was stupid because she was inarticulate in English. This is a serious error that often gets applied to the whole lot of foreigners. It’s easy to mock that which you don’t understand.
It takes a lot of courage to sound stupid so that you can be smart – anyone who knows five languages, like my Korean friend, can hardly be considered a twit. So I would like to preface this post with admission that I am writing this from a place of utmost empathy. Heaven knows I’ve massacred the French language since coming to Madagascar, although if you ask me, the French had theirs comin’. Mark Twain is supposed to have once insisted that “in Paris they simply stared at me when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.” Quite.
And long before French, I more than had my way with Spanish. Although I’ve pretty much got that one down pat now, there was a time when I too would make the classic blunder between ser and estar (pfft, amateur..). Now I know when I am and when I am, but to show magnanimous I really am, I will start this off with my shining moment as a hispanohablante. When you point the finger at others, after all, there are three pointing back at you (the thumb really just points awkwardly at hapless passersby).
My friend Noel is the owner of Artesanos, which I can confidently say is one of the best café/bars in Latin America. While living there, I had come into a bit of renown among my friends for my frequent baking. Here’s a good tip too for those of you entertaining the thought of moving to a new country but worried about how to make friends in your new surroundings: nobody, regardless of culture or creed, ever turns down a banana streusal muffin. I was talking with Noel and a few other friends one morning over breakfast at the cafe about how my contract was coming to an end and I wasn’t sure if I’d stay in Nicaragua or go home. Noel, bless his pea-picking heart, told me that if I wanted to stay in Nicaragua, I could come work for him. He was the type of guy that would hire you first and find something for you to do later, so as an afterthought he asked me, in Spanish, what I’d want to do. I replied – tumbling over my words as usual because I just have so much to say and not enough time to say it – that I’d be happy to bake for everyone.
Or so I thought. You see, to bake in Spanish is “horñear,” pronounced “orn-yey-ar.” But that ñ can be tricky and if you don’t pronounce it properly, it comes out awkwardly sounding more like orinar (orr-yee-nar). That, my friends, means “to urinate.” Noel’s response was to look at me with his most serious face and say “lo siento amor, pero aqui todos podemos orinar para nosotros mismos” (Sorry love, but here we can all pee for ourselves). That was the sad end to my career as a Nicaraguan pastry chef.
Many times in Nicaragua, we’d cackle over spelling errors in English documents. One of my favourite restaurants in Managua had a typo at the bottom of the first page of their 20-page menu that said “If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask your walter.” While the poor chele who translated 20 pages of flowery culinary descriptions deserves some whole-hearted respect, it never got old to ask if Walter was available to take our questions about where babies come from and the meaning of life.
In order to highlight just what a global affliction mistranslation is, I give you the “Sunny Golf Guide to Gasy Life.” The other week, I was staying at a hotel in Tamatave and the proprietors had thoughtfully placed a bottle of water, a tea set and the “Inside Procedures” on the desk for me. Usually things like this might provide one or two mistranslation gems, but the whole page was pure gold, so I have selected for you my very favourites:
- You are asked to not serve some current water than exclusively for the purpose of toilet (I am not sure what they are referring to with “current water” or “the purpose of toilet,” but I for one, am not touching the bottle of Eau Vive they left me).
- For your dirty linens and ironing, our laundry services stay at your disposition. It is prohibited positively from ironing the clothes in the room, to wash the linens in the sink or tub and to throw some objects there can obstruct them (Utterly and positively).
- Thank you to respect the sleep and rest of the other. To avoid the nocturnal uproars. (Oh but I do so love a good nocturnal uproar).
- In order to avoid possible temptation, all values […] can be deposited at Front Desk (You just can’t make this up).
- The non respect of these Inside Procedures entails the exclusion of the hotel directly.
- ENJOY YOUR STAY
In light of the positive prohibition on nocturnal uproars and treacherous toilet water currents, I feel that the last point is more of a command than well-wishing, but I can’t quite tell. Some things are just lost in the translation.