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           Volume 11 |Issue 04| January 27, 2012 |


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Straight Talk

Lost in Translation

Nadia Kabir Barb

Have you ever been disconcerted to find yourself in a room full of people and realise you don't understand what they're talking about? No, not because the conversation is way above your head but because it happens to be taking place in a completely different language! I must admit that I find the idea quite daunting of being in a country or environment where I do not understand a word of what is being said around me nor being able to read any road signs, posters, billboards etc. It makes me feel very vulnerable. It reminds me of when I got married, my husband announced that he was going to have to learn Bengali before he came to Dhaka as he refused to be left out of conversations. That and the fact that he did not want to give anyone the opportunity to say anything about him without him understanding. Wise move if you ask me.


I wish I had taken a leaf out of his book and learnt a little bit of Spanish before I went on holiday to Spain with a very close friend many years ago. She had kindly invited me and another friend (who was Italian) from University to go and visit her and her family for part of our summer holiday. Despite having a wonderful time, my Italian friend and I spent much of our time trying to decipher what was being said around us and to us as it was mostly in Spanish with a smattering of English. We were in the northwest of Spain visiting a little town called Sada where not many people spoke English at the time, and I recall on one of our grocery expeditions to a tiny little shop near where we were, we made ourselves the source of much amusement to the proprietor of the store. Having found the basic requirements on our shopping list, we went around the shop in search of bread but were unable to find any. Finally I went to the elderly gentleman and asked very confidently in my nonexistent Spanish “Quieres mi pan?” which I assumed: Do you have bread. For a moment or two he looked at me with a bemused expression and after I had repeated myself a few times his weather beaten face broke into an ear to ear grin. He directed me to the back of the shop where I found the bread and once I had paid, my friend and I left. He was at this point still chuckling to himself. When I returned to my friends house and asked why the man had been laughing at me, she told me, in between fits of laughter that I should have said “tiene pan” which actually means do you have bread and not “Quieres mi pan?” which when translated means “do you want my bread”!

Let it not be said that I do not learn from my mistakes. When my husband and I moved to Germany soon after we were married, I enrolled in an intensive German language course at the Goethe Institute in London albeit for only a week. In this time I tried to get my head around accusative, dative, genitive and nominative cases; struggled through Spelling or 'Rechtschreibung' and hoped that it would at least equip me with enough of the language to get by. We ended up living in the most picturesque little town called Kronberg just half an hour outside Frankfurt. However, as luck might have it not many people spoke English. Not our neighbours, nor the people in the cafes or shops lining the cobbled streets and not even in the local 'krabbleschuhe' where I took my toddler to play a couple of days a week and was expecting some of the mothers to speak some English. To compound to that, every channel on television was either in German or dubbed in German. Sadly my one week at the Goethe Institute had not prepared me for German TV. In desperation I found myself trying to lip read the programmes that had originally been in English. Together with my growing lip reading skills, I did find that over the two years that we were in Germany, I picked up enough of the language to get by on a day to day basis and have conversations that were very basic but coherent. I think the best way to get to know a place or the people is to learn the language and it really does give you so much more of an insight if you take the time and trouble to try and integrate into the society you are in.

I find it sad when I hear of people who have lived in a country for years and years and never take the time to learn to speak the language, try the local cuisine or even interact with the local people. I remember with some annoyance a particular expatriate I met in Dhaka many years ago, while my husband and I were doing a two year stint in Bangladesh. We met at a dinner and one of the first things he said to me was, “So are you one of the natives?” Then he went on to tell me that Dhaka was a hardship post and he really had not wanted to come. To top off this barrage of insults, he said quite smugly that he had not bothered to learn any Bengali other than Pani (water). This prompted me to turn my back on him and not bother to respond to him for the rest of the evening. I think it is a disgrace to live somewhere and not make any effort to embrace the language or the culture.

The other end of the spectrum would have to be the Keralan lady who came to me over eight years ago looking for a job as a cleaner/ housekeeper. Within minutes of meeting her I took an instant liking to her and she seemed to be keen to work for us so it looked like it was going to be the start of a great relationship. Oh yes, did I forget to mention that she did not speak a word of English when she came to us! I spent the next few months, no wait, the next few years trying to communicate in sign language, Pidgin English and whatever means of communication I could think of. It was definitely a case of “me Tarzan, you Jane”. My kids would point to their mouths and say “me hungry” or would I say “please get.....” or “please do....”and then try and show with my hands what I might be talking about. For example, to describe a samosa, you would have to make a triangle with your hands or to say vacuum cleaner you would have to pretend you were holding something and push it back and forth. It was like playing a continuous game of Pictionary and Charades. However, unlike the obnoxious expat, she took the initiative to learn from the English we did speak with her and with every year her vocabulary grew and our hand signals and gestures grew few and far between and eventually stopped.

She is now on the way to becoming a British citizen but for that she has had to pass what is called 'Life in the UK Test' which is the 'knowledge of language and life in the UK that you need to have before you make an application for naturalisation as a British citizen.' She has learned the language, integrated into life here and that is more than I can say for so many people living either in the UK or other countries.

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