Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sand and Witches

Hansel und die Hexe, image originally uploaded to Flickr by _bel_

I was never very good at French at school, but that didn't stop me wanting to be a translator for one short, foolhardy period of my life. In other words, I used to think I was good. So good in fact that I felt I could make up my own words...

One day we'd been set a task of translating a 500 word passage of text. Pierre was going on a school trip, and we'd to translate his exploits from English into sensible French. And I was doing swimmingly. In fact I had effortlessly translated all bar one word: 'sandwich'. I looked in my English/French dictionary and could not find 'sandwich' listed there. What was I to do? Well this was 25 years ago - no Babelfish web translation service to rely upon (although I had read about a babelfish in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy at the time!). In fact we had only one computer in the whole school and we only got to see the teacher use it if we were 'good boys and girls'.

Anyway, I remembered what I'd been shown in German classes, that in that language they append one word to another in order to make a bigger word. So thinking myself clever, I came up with: the word for 'sand' and the word for 'witch' to get la sablesorciere.

Needless to say this tangential thinking was SO ahead of its time it did not go down at all well when my teacher marked the work!

Yesterday, I received this email from the moderator of one of the Flickr groups that I belong to:

"What is wrong with you ? ...
What is wrong with you people ?
How hard is it to take a part in the group task ?
It takes only a minuet !
It doesn't ask for food or money !
You asked only to express some responsibilityto the group and to be active in that task.
see more in this link:...."

And I was stunned as I don't normally receive such terse or rude emails. Ever. Not even from my pupils! So I thought, 'what the hecks' this all about?' and I followed the link to a discussion that has now been removed (more of that later) telling me in what I perceived to be bullying tones, replete with graphs and the like, that I had obligations to make the group the biggest on Flickr by recruiting more members.

Well I was a wee bit miffed by this, and, so it would appear, were others. The result was that people voiced their anger in droves, leading to the removal of the offending graphs by a moderator, and an apology form the group admin who had sent the original email.

The point? He is Israeli and English is not is native tongue. As a result what he thought was a jokey encouragement in Hebrew, when translated into English became a very rude and arrogant message. It was interesting that a moderator in the group had ultimate faith in the admin that she initially refused to believe he could have caused furore, and then single-handedly defused the situation through compassionate words and encouragement to 'give it another chance and see what we can make out of it...' For many people it was not good enough to maintain their membership of the group. But me, I thought of 'sand and witches' and realised it is all too easy to make mistakes when writing in another tongue. So I cut him some slack.

My ultimate thought though, is that although I largely agree with Thomas Friedman's notions that 'The World is Flat', as long as incidents like this show that language separates us, after all as some people interpreted what was intended as '[trying to]...tried to motivate members to take part on the group task.as you know, i'm not English speaker ... it sound like joke in Hebrew ...' as 'way out of line', 'hasseling (sic) people ', 'I am in tears, it is not a language problem, it is harassment' and I could go on, then there will always be peaks and troughs to be coped with in the world.

Perhaps, in a way, this is evidence that there is danger in assuming the world is flat, just because we speak another language we think we can communicate in it, or that because someone write in our language we assume they know what they are saying! In this case we all interpreted the email as being very rude, without even stopping to think that he speaks Hebrew as his native tongue and that it might have lost something in the translation (one need look no further than the list of Chinese film titles to see how this can lead to bizarre outcomes).

I'll leave the last word to the Moderator of the group who said 'Now we can get back to focusing on the the things that really matter. FUN! ' Hear hear!