lostnchina

…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row

Lost in Translation – Why I’m Not an Interpreter

My Mother often asks me why I don’t step up and help foreigners translate, as they stammer and gulp their way through the simplest things, like asking where the bathroom is, how to get to the bus station, what happened to their cell phone, which was on the table in front of them at the restaurant only moments ago, and so on.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  My first instinct is to help people in need, and not just to stand by and watch them helplessly flail about, then capture the meaty bits on a blog for your reading pleasure.  But I’ve decided that foreigners usually only require extensive interpretation, when things aren’t going so smoothly.  In such cases, interpreting requires a great deal of finesse and may become tricky.

                                

VIVE LA FRANCE!

The best place for tempers to boil is waiting in line for something that doesn’t happen as quickly as it should.

For your consideration: 7:20am at a Chinese commuter ferry terminal ticket counter, which doesn’t open till 7:30am and the ferry sails at 8:00am.   There are 4 ticket windows and 2 lines of about 10 people each, including a Frenchman who smells like his cologne of choice is Eau de Cognac.

I think the commuter ferry company enjoys this game of Russian roulette it plays with customers.  Passengers never know which of the 4 ticket windows will open and people line up at a random window, like placing a bet on a number – hoping their window will be the one to hit the jackpot.

When the windows finally opened up at  7:34am (2 of them), the Frenchman started snarling, as his window was not one of the ones which opened up, so he had to line up all over again.  Then, he INSISTED that EVERYONE line up in ONE line, even though there were 2 windows:

(In a slurred heavy French-accented English): “No, no, no!  You are lining up all wrong!  Why can’t you people be more civilized!  You should line up like civilized human beings!  You should form ONE LINE, ONE LINE!  DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND ANY ENGLISH!”

As I stood stupidly gaping at what I’d just heard, the Frenchman had started to forcibly push people into one line, since nobody could understand him.

This started a Tourette’s syndrome of profanities from one mousy-looking Chinese man, who must’ve been delighted to finally use the few words of English he knew:

“You..f-f-fuk!  F-f-fuk you!  Fuk you, you FUK!  Shit, man!  F-f-f-fuk!  How you FUK! FUK!”

Others were wagging their fingers at the Frenchman and cursing in Chinese: “Who do you think you are, pushing us around like that!  You don’t like it, you go back to where you came from!”

The funny thing was, even though all the Chinese were FURIOUS with the Frenchman, nobody had dared to line up at the second window.  Everyone stood obediently in one line.

Finally, I decided to line up at the second window, right behind the Frenchman.

Frenchie: (turning around looking bemusedly at me, eyebrows raised) Oh, a nice lady, hello….

Me: Yes.  AND I speak English BETTER THAN YOU, AND I can tell you that we CAN line up in two lines, so STOP PUSHING US AROUND.

Suddenly, chaotic voices erupted behind me:

“Yea, Miss!  Yea!  You tell him!  You tell him to get his mother fucking smelly foreign ass out of our country!  Tell him to go back to where he came from!  Stupid mother fucker!”

“Stupid foreigners!  Who does he think he is!”

“F-f-f-fuk!  FUK YOU, YOU FUK!  YOU FUK SHIT!  SHIT SHIT FUK FUK!”

“Someone get this guy out of the line!  We have a ferry to catch!”

The Frenchman glared at me, muttered something in French, bought his ticket, called us uncivilized a few more times, then toddled off to catch the ferry.

Being the only one who spoke to the Frenchman in a way that he actually understood, I ended up having to calm the crowd down; everyone was too excited, as if we managed to collectively deflect some imperialist invasion.  I almost missed my ferry.

Where’s Ghandi when you need him?                

I had no idea that the commuter ferry serves up corn in its cafeteria till I became  a very unwilling interpreter between an East Indian passenger and the cafeteria staff:

East Indian: I would like some of the corn (on the cob) you have please.

Staff: No…no corn, sorry, no.

East Indian: Yes!  I have corn here last time, you have corn, yes!

Staff: No, sorry.  No corn today.

Curiosity-killed-the-cat Me (in Chinese to staff): You serve CORN on the ferry?

Staff (to me in Chinese): Yes.  But we don’t have enough to sell today.  It’s not for sale.  We’re saving it for our own lunch.

Me (to East Indian in English): They do have corn usually, but just not today.

East Indian: No, I saw the corn today just now.  You give it to me, I buy two.

Staff: No, no corn!

Me (in Chinese to staff): He seems very adamant on having the corn.

Staff (to me in Chinese): You tell him we have no corn today, this is our policy. (To the East Indian) We have no corn, NO!

Me (to East Indian): Look, they have corn usually, but they don’t have enough to sell today, so you just can’t buy any today.

East Indian (becoming visibly agitated): I just want two corn!  It is not a lot of corn.  You have two corn, you sell to me!  You are keeping corn from me, you are being racist!  I am vegetarian; I can only eat corn!

By this time, we were attracting a small, increasingly impatient crowd…mainly the people who were lining up behind us.

Me (in Chinese to staff): You must have something else that’s vegetarian; he’s getting pretty pissed off!

Staff (to East Indian): We have noodle soup, just noodle?

East Indian: The broth is beef!  I cannot eat beef broth, I must have corn!

Me (in Chinese to staff): He can’t eat the soup which is beef.

Staff (to East Indian): You just have noodle then!  Noodle good!

Now, the East Indian’s buddy had joined him and the cafeteria staff Supervisor.

Me (in Chinese to the Supervisor): The East Indian thinks you’re racist because you won’t sell him corn.

Supervisor (in Chinese to the East Indian): Lookee here!  Nobody is being racist on this ferry.  We just can’t sell corn today and that is that.  You can buy anything else (produces a box of almond cookies).  Here are some almond cookies – they are very good and very vegetarian!  (then to me) Miss, you tell him we have almond cookies!

Me (in Chinese to the Supervisor): Hey, I just want to buy a Hong Kong phone card!  I don’t want any trouble!

The two East Indian passengers look at me expectantly.

Me: OK, LOOK. (by this time, all of the passengers waiting in line are looking at my expectantly) The ferry cannot sell any corn today.  They would LOVE to sell YOU the corn, if they could, but they just don’t have enough to sell.  The corn is not for sale.  They are very, VERY sorry.  But there is just NO CORN FOR SALE.  NOBODY can have corn, it’s not just you.  You can have these almond cookies.

The two East Indian passengers take the box of almond cookies and examine the box carefully.

Me (in Chinese to the Supervisor): Can I at least get a phone card while they’re looking at the almond cookies?

While I pay and get my card, the first East Indian passenger says:

OK.  We get the almond cookie, but we get also ONE corn, please.  It’s OK?

I run back to my seat and never look back.

34 comments on “Lost in Translation – Why I’m Not an Interpreter

  1. MiaMusings
    October 20, 2014

    Just found your blog…and so glad i did! this is hilarious…loved narrative and the way you write.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      October 21, 2014

      Thank you for visiting! I’m glad the writing *speaks* to you.

      Like

  2. Chaos in Slow-motion
    October 24, 2013

    Haha! Loved ur post. Being an Indian, it just struck me that we’re worlds apart n cant even understand each other, inspite of being neighbours! Lol

    Like

    • lostnchina
      October 24, 2013

      It’s very true. Although to be honest, I can’t understand Chinese people sometimes either and I speak the language!

      Thank you for your comment!

      Like

  3. bronxboy55
    October 19, 2013

    Susan, if you would only become fluent in Korean, Persian, Russian, and Arabic, you could probably prevent the next world war.

    Like

  4. Jean
    September 25, 2013

    Well written! Yea, not surprising that Chinese crowd would get pissed off at anyone shoving them around.

    Like

  5. gingerfightback
    September 17, 2013

    I have just spat tea over my computer screen – brilliant!

    Like

    • lostnchina
      September 18, 2013

      I’m sorry, our insurance doesn’t cover for that. I do have an old sock you can sop up the mess with.

      Like

  6. Lin
    September 17, 2013

    Susan, you’re so funny! I love reading your blog.

    Like

  7. americantaitai
    September 17, 2013

    What a treat to read the blog post that kicked off LostnChina! 🙂

    Like

    • lostnchina
      September 17, 2013

      Thanks! Shows me what a long way I’ve come (literally, on the ferry and the airplane)!

      Like

  8. dasbeard2013
    September 16, 2013

    You should’ve pointed the Indian dude to the staff toilets, after advising him there’ll be plenty of corn in there, just after lunch.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      September 16, 2013

      I think that vocabulary would entail something quite beyond what the Indian dude could grasp. Besides, that will quickly spiral out of control and cause a racial corn showdown between India and China.

      Like

  9. Snoring Dog Studio
    September 15, 2013

    Hilarious and depressing! Language is an incredible barrier. Even when people speak the same language, we can’t understand each other. You were quite brave to wade into this rat’s nest of humanity. You were talking about ears of corn, right? That would have been a lovely sight to see. Corn in teeth along with Eau de Cognac. Ah, humanity.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      September 16, 2013

      Thanks for reading. I never thought eating corn on the cob was conducive to rolling the high waves of the ocean (haven’t seen corn on the menu since this incident, btw.) Now all they serve is beef noodle soup and Ovaltine.

      Like

  10. expatlingo
    September 15, 2013

    I’ve always loved this post. Hey, what was up with your last password protected post? I was dying to read about your TV viewing habits in China but couldn’t see it.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      September 16, 2013

      Oh yeah, sorry about that. Even after all this time I can’t get the hang of WordPress. Was merely trying to revise the DRAFT of that post which I’d marked as PRIVATE but upon updating it, the post became PUBLIC so I set a PW, not knowing how to take the post off without deleting it completely. Sighh.. first world problems in a third world brain. Thanks for asking.

      Like

  11. lostnchina
    September 15, 2013

    Reblogged this on lostnchina and commented:

    The anniversary of the post that started this whole blog…

    Like

  12. Pingback: Lost in Translation: When English Is Not Enough | lostnchina

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  16. lostnchina
    September 3, 2011

    Actually, if truth be known, I’m pretty sure that the almond cookies are made with lard.

    Like

    • dasbeard2013
      September 16, 2013

      You can make some lush Italian cookies with grated almonds and icing sugar. No lard required – look at me being genuinely helpful. I’m off to sit down now.

      Like

      • lostnchina
        September 16, 2013

        Seapking of lush Italian cookies, are you from the country that’s responsible for those hideous Scottish Oatcakes? I think the UN should send in a team to decommission all oatcake-making facilities. Those things were not meant to be of this earth.

        Like

  17. Craig Roth
    September 3, 2011

    Wow. Things have really changed since I lived in China. They have lines now? Amazing!

    Like

  18. Andrew
    September 2, 2011

    Very true and funny. When I’ve traveled in India, I made the observation that if I can convey my request in two English words, that gets the job done. If I need more than that, I just might be out of luck. And perhaps it’s better to just take no for an answer–if I ask for corn, and they say there’s no corn (or as many in India would confusingly say, “The corn is finished.”) then I get something else. Almond cookies, perhaps.

    Like

  19. Tinkerbelle (@Lillyheart999)
    September 2, 2011

    hilarious!!!!

    Like

  20. Maxim
    September 2, 2011

    The frenchman may have been rude, but the other people on the line were very racist. Not cool.

    Like

    • lostnchina
      September 2, 2011

      And calling Chinese people uncivilized and wanting them to speak English is NOT racist…?

      Like

      • Maxim
        September 2, 2011

        Not defending the frenchman, but racism shouldn’t beget more racism.

        Like

        • dasbeard2013
          September 16, 2013

          For my two pennerth; we should all be respectful, but when the opposition decides to be disrespectful; the gloves are off son. You’re getting some Bearded ghetto princess action (I’m not gay or owt, I just like a bit of camp).

          Like

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