Monday, October 16, 2006

Lost in Translation

My girlfriend and I are out for a meal with some of her family. When we arrive at the restaurant, the waiter hears her mother and her uncle speaking in German (they are German – it’s not a party trick or anything), and immediately addresses us all in German, gesturing towards the table that we should sit at. I spend most of my life not really wanting to make a fuss, and I’m so impressed by his linguistic capabilities and welcoming nature that I feel it would be churlish to mention that as I am English, he is English, and we are in an English restaurant in England he and I could just converse in English. Instead, I make the subconscious decision that I will go through the whole evening just saying “danke schön” to him and pointing intently at the menu.

We take our seats. Here is a table of languages spoken, going clockwise around the table:

MeEnglish, French (O-level grade B)
My girlfriend’s fatherEnglish
My girlfriendEnglish, German, Vietnamese
My girlfriend’s motherGerman, English
My girlfriend’s uncleGerman, Spanish
My girlfriend’s uncle’s girlfriendSpanish

It is like the United Nations with breadsticks.

Note that I am sitting next to my girlfriend’s uncle’s girlfriend, and that nobody around the table speaks both English and Spanish. The fact that my girlfriend also speaks Vietnamese is not relevant, nor is my O-level. But I am quite proud of it.

We negotiate the menus fairly successfully (what with two thirds of us actually speaking English, three-quarters of those from birth), though a Colombian kitchen porter has to be brought in to describe a tricky sauce that won’t translate through three languages.

My girlfriend’s mother and her uncle haven’t seen each other for ages and have a lot to catch up on. Meanwhile, my girlfriend is being quizzed about work by her father. This leaves me with my girlfriend’s uncle’s girlfriend. Conversation is stilted to say the least as it has to go through at least two other parties each way. I decide to ask her how her starter is. By the time I get an answer we have moved on to the next course.

I am also slightly suspicious that someone along the line isn’t translating properly when an innocuous query about a recent holiday is met with a curious frown and a prolonged trip to the ladies’. I am reminded of the story of an official state visit where a diplomatic translator ended up taking things into his own hands at one point by saying, “My Prime Minister has just made a joke that I won’t bother to translate as it isn’t very funny. Please laugh now.”

“This has been like Chinese whispers”, I say to her over the coffees, inadvertently introducing a fourth language, and a non-Indo-European one to boot.


I decide to just cut my losses and ask for the bill. “Entschuldigen Sie”, I call to our waiter, before reverting to making an elaborate “writing on a pad” gesture.