A Failure of Language

Lost in translation

Did they really mean this?

In an earlier post, I said that nerd, geek and cookie have no direct counterparts in Turkish. This isn’t quite true because the alternative meaning for cookie is biscuit, which explained the puzzlement on the faces of the students at Bilgi University. One of them eventually asked why commercial websites would want to place¬† biscuits on site visitors’ computers.

When I had just started working in Chicago for Leo Burnett in the 1980s, I had a similar problem. Our creative group head on Memorex was a chap called Murray Kalis. My boss, who was Chuck Curry, was not happy with some scripts for the launch of Memorex’s VHS tapes. So, at 9am one morning, Chuck had a meeting with Murray.

“How did it go?” I asked Chuck.

“It was tough,” he replied. “He was really pissed.”

I looked at him in alarm. “What!? At this time in the morning?”

Chuck eyed me in confusion. “What’s wrong with being pissed in the morning?” he demanded.

We eventually got it sorted out. In UK English we would have said that Murray was really angry, so this little lesson taught me not to make too many assumptions about what people say and what they actually mean.

If I said to you, without putting any emphasis on an individual word, “I didn’t say Chuck was a bad teacher,” you would think that I hadn’t said Chuck was a bad teacher. But the meaning of that sentence is dramatically changed if, for example, I said, “I didn’t say Chuck was a bad teacher.” This implies that I thought someone else was a bad teacher. If I had put the emphasis on I the meaning would then be that someone else had said that Chuck was useless, and so on.

During the teaching I’ve been doing this summer for The European Association of Communications Agencies’ School, this aspect of English has caused some difficulties. Pronunciation and word order don’t matter that much, but emphasis does. You can even make up your own words and expect people to understand what you mean simply by listening to that new word in the context of the rest of what you say.¬† A great example was when George W Bush declared that he had been much misunderestimated. Sarah Palin has recently done the same with refudiate.

So, here’s a piece of advice when teaching abroad. Keep your sentences short, avoid undue emphasis, especially if you think you’re being funny, and listen to what the non-native English speakers say whilst paying little attention to their emphasis. Frequently, they place emphasis on a word they find difficult to pronounce.

And avoid technical terms which simply do not translate, like geek, nerd, cookie, and pissed.

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