Lost in translation

Working through translators are par for the course in this job. Even our here in Angola where my Portuguese is slowly slowly improving, if it’s a particularly important matter where we really can’t have any confusion I will use a translator (the extent of my vocabulary is somewhat limited!)

Even so, occasionally what we are saying, no matter how clear we try to be, something’s get ‘lost in translation’.

I was having a good belly laugh with one of my colleagues yesterday about our experiences…

She was speaking with a supervisor about the amount of work he was doing. She thought he had taken on more than he could cope with and so told him he had ‘bitten off more than he could chew’. He said ok but looked quite dejected.

She returned a week later around lunchtime and found him not eating. Now in Cambodia when food is up for grabs, it generally disappears fairly quickly but no matter how much she offered he continue to refuse the food.

When she eventually managed to extract the reason why, she established that the week before her translator had translated ‘bitten off more than you chew’ to be “she thinks you eat too much” and so ever since the poor bloke had been starving himself!

.     You have to wonder how red painted sticks can cause SUCH confusion!

In Mozambique my colleague was on a money saving campaign and was trying to find ways to cut costs. We mark our minefields with red painted sticks and he recognised that a lot of paint was being used painting the entire stick when really painting the top would suffice.

Through his translator, he instructed his supervisors to just paint the top half of the stick from now on….or so he thought!

He returned to the minefields the following week to see several deminers NOT demining and instead they were methodically scrapping all the paint off the bottom half of marking sticks. When he asked why the supervisor replied that the previous week he had given the strict instruction that from now on “all minefields are only allowed to have half painted sticks”!

Occasionally if we are clearing minefields on a site which had been the scene of heavy fighting during the war we find bones of a soldier who succumbed to his death on the battlefield. A colleague had been on such a minefield one day and given that these bones have been there for such a long time and any family long since gone, it is impossible to locate any relatives to remove the bones.

So she instructed her supervisor to inform the local police before conducting a small ceremony and burying the bones.

Returning a few weeks later she asked, through her translator, whether the supervisor had conducted the ceremony for the ‘skeleton’. The supervisor looked confused so she asked; did you tell the police about the ‘skeleton’? He again looked confused but said yes, he had spoken to the police about the site.

She persisted and asked ‘well did you buy some rice and coca cola to give as an offering to the skeleton before it was buried?’ He looked even more confused so she went to the site of the bones, they were gone so she assumed her instruction had been followed.

It wasn’t until later in the day when her translator asked if she could show him a skeleton because he hadn’t seen one before! Now it was she who looked confused. She asked him to clarify and established that her translator thought a ‘skeleton’ was a type of landmine and so had actually been asking the supervisor ‘did he do a ceremony with rice for a landmine?’ and ‘did he inform the police before he buried the landmine?’ Etc…

No wonder the poor supervisor looked thoroughly confused!

I must remember to not use colloquial sayings when I speak through translators…I dread to think how ‘never judge a book by its cover’ and ‘if life deals you lemons make lemonade’ might end up being translated!

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