Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Lost in translation (updated)

The proofreading of the book I'm currently working on is down to the researching of various small details that didn't get nailed down in earlier drafts. For instance, when a Eurotunnel passenger goes through the Chunnel with his own car does he drive it onto the train himself or does staff do it? (Passenger.) Do you stay with your car for the journey? (Stay.) Do they sell duct tape in England? (They sell it on, which is good enough for me.) Do they call it duct tape? (It appears they have the same problem we do over here, sometimes calling it duct tape and sometimes calling it duck tape, or rather, Duck Tape, as in a brand name...) Would a somewhat-Protestant, mostly-secular English gentleman of good breeding be more likely to think of it as intercessory prayer or as intercessional prayer? (I'm still a bit stumped on that last one. From the dictionaries I've consulted so far, intercessory appears to be an adjective in the U.S., but not in the U.K.? At least technically? Research continues...)

I've had a few pleasant detours trying to nail down the spelling of a French word. I still haven't satisfied myself as to whether it's permissible to spell laicisme with vowels any English speaker would recognize, or if I need one of those specialized ones with a couple of dots above it for that first i. (*Updated: see below.) But in the meantime, I've read that lever (ler-VAY) means lift, and that lever du jour (ler-VAY-dew-zhoor) means daybreak, and that lever du soleil (ler-VAY-so-LEHY) means sunrise. Day lift. Sun lift. I like that, particularly the idea of sun lift. It also sounds beautiful. I like that, too.

From another phrase book comes the info that a traveler should refer to an intensive care unit at a hospital as service de réanimation. (This particular phrase book's pronunciation guides are impossible to reproduce with the keyboard I have. Sorry about that. For that matter, I don't understand its pronunciation guide. Not in the least. I'm pretty sure that service is something like sehr-VEES, if that's of any use to you.) At any rate, I really like that an intensive care unit is more or less called a reanimation center or reanimation service. It shows proper spirit or attitude or something. :)

But then there's that word spirituel (spee-ree-TWAYL), which sounds like 'spiritual,' yes? No. According to the dictionaries I have, it means witty. [see update at bottom of post]

'Now that sounds like a misunderstanding waiting to happen,' I told myself when I read that.

This made me think of a few lost in translation misunderstandings I've bumped into in the past...

For instance, when I was on a college trip to Central America, another co-ed and myself somehow got ourselves invited to a live theatrical performance in Costa Rica. The gentleman who invited us worked at a university there, and somehow managed to have good enough references. It was, if I remember correctly, a production of Volpone (I could be wrong about that). At any rate, this gentleman was on something of a mission to prove to foreigners that his country had a world class theater company, and he took us to a show. After the show, he asked how we liked it, and I said that I had loved the show and the acting was so good it almost made up for the fact that I didn't know but a few words of Spanish. This led to him warning me that if I didn't know a word in Spanish, I must not try to bluff my way through by taking an English word and trying to make it sound Spanish. He was very earnest about this. Surprisingly earnest. Finally, he explained why.

The worst trouble he'd ever gotten into in his life, he said, was when he'd tried to be nice to a visiting lady professor from America. The woman was homesick, and so he spent time with her, and then, one day, invited her to share a home cooked meal with his family. He lived with his mother, I think. At any rate, his mama was in charge of the meal. The visiting lady professor -- trying to express her gratitude for being invited into their home -- told Mama that, really, she was awfully embarrassed about all the attention being paid to her by Mama's son.

Mama's son -- full-grown and a respected professional, definitely a suit and tie sort of fellow -- found himself dragged by the ear into the next room, where an enraged and righteous mother lit into him for bringing shame on the family for getting a woman pregnant out of wedlock. I guess embarrass is pretty close to the Spanish word for pregnant. It apparently took quite a bit of explaining before that mess was cleared up.

So, he said, I should never try to bluff my way through by giving English words a more Spanish pronunciation. I should especially never, never, ever, tell a gentleman's mother that I was embarrassed about anything.

I could see his point. Can't you?

I ran into a similar misunderstanding at a school for the deaf that we visited in Canada while on tour with Up With People. One of the first things the kids asked me (I was serving as translator), was to tell them what a certain sign meant to me. The sign consisted of holding the hands near the belly, interlocked, palms in, fingers straight, and then moving the hands in a circle parallel to the ground. 'Why, that means America, or American,' I said. (It represents a split-rail fence, if you're wondering.) They were much relieved. They'd had, they told me, a team of girls from another school for the deaf come across the border for some event, and, excited to have been told that Americans were coming to visit, had rushed out and asked the girls if they were really American. Or that's what they thought they asked. They didn't understand the fury and face-slapping that resulted... until they found out that at that particular school, somehow that sign had come to mean (you guessed it) pregnant. Good girls on a field trip to Canada did not appreciate being called sluts right after they got off the bus...

I can't remember if it was at that school for a deaf or a different one up in Canada that I made my big, televised sign language gaffe. At any rate, the concert's directors thought that it would be cool to have me stand on stage translating during the concert. The songs, however, had never been translated into song sign, and so I was on my own. Not funny. I had taken one night course in sign language. I explained that one night course does not a translator make, which idea they initially poohed poohed on the grounds that song sign is notoriously full of artistic license, or so they understood. I finally prevailed upon them to let me take some time off and go visit a sign language instructor at a college we were near at the time. The instructor and I ran into a bit of a snag on one of the signature songs of Up With People, "What Color Is God's Skin?" What color is God's was easy enough, and fell wonderfully into place as to one sign moving into another. Very artistic. Very easy to read, even from the back of an auditorium. But skin? Neither of us knew a really standard sign for skin, and the one we both had seen used (pinching the back of a hand or the forearm) didn't go with the flow of the song, and wasn't pretty, and might not be easy to read from a distance. So we made up a sign. (She agreed with the show's producers, btw, that song sign traditionally allows for a fair amount of artistic license.) We decided to have me run a couple of fingers down my cheek in a specific way. We figured that if people didn't understand it as skin, they'd understand it as face, which was close enough to the right meaning, we thought...

Fast forward to the performance. We got to the school, and there was a television news crew standing by to share the event with Canadian viewers. No pressure there, right? The crew was delighted that there was a sign language translator on stage. (It wasn't so common in those days.) I found myself not only fighting stage jitters but camera fright, with a camera right. on. me. but I muddled through pretty well, I thought.

After the concert, I was mobbed by adoring fans. Rock star city. The mob was horribly disappointed when they found out I wasn't deaf. I guess a rumor had got around... Sigh. My biggest brush with being a superstar and I have to explain they're mistaken about me... Sigh...

At any rate, at some point, quite a few kids in the mob started asking me what in the world that song was about God and color? What, specifically, did I mean by that sign with the fingers on the face? I spelled out s.k.i.n. 'Well, that makes the song make sense, finally,' they said. 'Why?' says I. 'Does that sign mean something else to you?'

They nodded, and began to spell M.o.r.m - at which time I suddenly remembered that it was the sign for Mormon. (After a founder's trademark sideburns, as I understand it.)

I think I might have mentioned this before (is it a sign of getting old, or what, if you write the same story two years apart and don't remember that until you're finished with the newer one???), but there might be an archive TV tape up in eastern Canada somewhere showing a young lady dramatically enacting "What color is God's Mormon?" in sign language. That would be me.

It's a good thing I know how to laugh at myself, that's all I can say.

Go ahead, laugh. I don't mind being the cause of a few smiles. :)

*Added: OK, I guess I probably need laïcisme. (And, no, I don't mean laïcité. They're related, but this book has a French Catholic thinking about the troubles she's had from extreme secularists, those that are anti-religious and not just interested in 'separating church and state' -- and my research, or at least my research so far, indicates that the Catholic Church sees laïcité as milder than laïcisme. This isn't my field, though, not by a long shot. So correct me if I'm wrong.)

Update: A reader clarifies things in the comments, writing: "spirituel" = "witty" in the way we would say in English "full of spirits" or "high-spirited". Thanks, coffeemama!


Mama Squirrel said...

Oh my gosh, I thought I was the only person who ever took a very few sign language courses and then got pushed into interpreting something that was way over my head. Twice. And at least one of those times it was because the real interpreter didn't show up, not because I was showing off.

After crawling home with my hands firmly in my pockets, I vowed I would Never. Do. That. Again.

Oh--and my daughter's grade 9 French book (from this past year) also has "spirituel" translated as "witty." I had never known that word either until I helped her with her homework this year.

Mama Squirrel said...

Oh--another often-misunderstood French/English problem is the word "deception." In French it means "disappointment." So you might hear a francophone speaker telling you that he had a great deception about something, but he doesn't mean that someone swindled him, only that he was disappointed.

Kathryn Judson said...

Mama Squirrel, Oh, good, I'm not the only one... Some day I should tell you about the time the police department begged me to come help them with a young woman who'd turned up wandering around a college campus and who didn't seem to know who she was and who they thought might be deaf... As it turned out, she didn't know any sign language at all... and was more than a bit crazy...

And thanks for the warning on "deception"! I only know a bit of French, mostly what I've picked up off an immersion course on CD and from reading old books. (Back from when it was assumed that all educated English readers knew French.) One of the phrases that might have thrown me if I'd run into it cold is the French way of saying "I'm sorry." It sounds like they're saying they're desolate. I'm afraid if someone had pulled that on me before I'd learned what it meant, I might have rushed in with reassurances that they needn't be that upset... :)

coffeemamma said...

"spirituel" = "witty" in the way we would say in English "full of spirits" or "high-spirited".

Kathryn Judson said...

Coffeemama, Thanks!