Lost in translation



My learner, Jovi, a Filipino, arrived back from his driving test scuffing the kerb, then managed to pull up so far from the pavement that a drawbridge would have been useful. I waited, watching through the windscreen as Jovi sat impassively while the examiner reeled off his faults and told him he had failed.

“Ah cooodn’t ooonderstand a werd ‘e sed!” said the examiner in his Yorkshire accent as he eased himself out of the car. “Wors ‘e frum?”
“The Philippines.” I informed him.
” Bloooody ‘ell!” He rolled his eyes.
I opened the car door and sat in the passenger seat recently warmed by the examiner. “Well Jovi what went wrong?” I asked.
“I no oonerstan’ wot he say me!”
“But you understand me, Jovi?”
“You talk different, I oonerstan’ you!”
I resisted the urge to head butt the dashboard. I might have activated the passenger airbag.

Over the last five years as a Driving Instructor I have taught people from all over the globe. Many have an excellent command of English but most have, to varying degrees, a very loose grasp. Having never learned a foreign language, I admire these migrants who sometimes can speak two or three tongues, besides their own. Apart from struggling to master English, they have to contend, as Jovi did, with the various regional accents; he was accustomed to my mild Scottish lilt, not the examiner’s flat Yorkshire vowels.
All this brought to mind an experience of language and accent difficulties I experienced during my time in Spain. For a while, I worked with a Spanish builder called Jaime or, as he was known in the British community, Jimmy; his main line of work, villa renovation and swimming pool installation. He introduced me to his unsuspecting clients as his Architecto. In Spain, like the far edge of the Wild West, you could claim to be anything or anybody, so Jimmy simply elevated me from Interior Designer to Architect. I didn’t disabuse any of his clients of this minor deception. Popular and colourful in equal measures, Jimmy, as a result of living for many years in the UK, spoke faultless English. His son, Giuseppe, however, not having the advantage of having lived in Britain, had a just passable grasp of English. Physically, Jimmy was Rizzo the Rat and Giuseppe, Fozzie Bear. Genetically, there was no trace of Jimmy in Giuseppe. His mother, reputed to be Italian must have been some Mamma.

We had a loose arrangement, very loose. I produced the designs and drawings that helped sell the ideas to Jimmy’s, mainly British Expat, clientele; Jimmy and Giuseppe carried out the building work so that the villa loosely resembled my artistic impressions.

Usually, Jimmy was there with me at the sales pitch, but on this particular occasion Giuseppe attended the meeting to discuss a pub refurbishment. Without Jimmy by my side I I was a bit concerned about the communication issue. We arrived outside of the premises, a retail shop unit. In Spain, it was quite common for shop units to be used as bars or restaurants. As we approached we noticed two men loitering in the doorway dressed in Newcastle United shirts, their exposed, sun burned arms, displayed a vivid array of tattoos. For a brief moment I considered asking them to move on, then, following the self preservation rule: never tell football supporters to ‘move on”, or anything else for that matter I decided to say nothing. This decision proved to be a good one. The Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley tribute act introduced themselves. They were were the clients.

Keys were produced and we stepped through the unlocked doors into the gloomy shop interior the battleground of a fight between the smell of stale lager and the aroma from the toilets. A battle that the lavatories were winning hands down. The shop had already had been converted into a bar, one that had gone bust, another victim of the lapping waves of the looming financial crash. The project was to alter what was already there.

Giuseppe stood with his note book at the ready, pencil poised.

“Wid leek t’ booar to be coot back t’ aboot ‘eer, leek, man.” Said Alan Shearer pointing to where the bar was to be ‘coot’ back to.

“Coot back aboot foor fit, leek.” Added Beardsley, his striking partner providing the measurement.

Fozzie Bear looked sideways at me confused, his eyebrows more tightly knitted than an Arran Jumper. “¿Que?”

Realising that the Newcastle accent had totally thrown Giuseppe, I quickly stepped in to translate.

“They would like the bar to be cut back by 120 centimetres, to about here,” I said, unravelling the sentences. “Like.”

“¿Comprende?” I asked.

Giuseppe, back in the loop, started to scribble furiously. “¡Vale! Claro.”

Shearer and Beardsley exchanged looks, obviously wondering why on earth I was repeating, in English, everything they had just said, in what they believed was English.

And so the meeting progressed. I was Igor Korchilov translating for Gorbachev.
Eventually the meeting ended and the Torrevieja battalion of the Toon Army wandered off in search of a bar that was still actually trading. As we watched them disappear round a corner Giuseppe turned to me, a puzzled look on his face.

“Sandy, mi amigo. What do you English say, you have kept that under your hat!”

“What do you mean?”

“I no idea you speak Swedish!”

3 thoughts on “Lost in translation

  1. In between chuckling at the peculiarities of the language barrier, I find myself caught up in “the battleground of a fight between the smell of stale lager and the aroma from the toilets.” Is it not the toilets’ job to fight against the aroma of their deposits? If the toilets are fighting the smell of the brew with their own foul contents, this must mean that these toilets have gone rogue, shirking their disposal duties to instead engage in some truly dirty warfare. How horrible!


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