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Getting lost in translation


GREY MUTTER: Remember that we are all prone to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misconception, especially if we are not speaking the ‘same language’. So these days it would pay to make sure we understand statements we hear and read before accepting them, writes Lance Fredericks.

Image by Evelyn Chai from Pixabay

SOMETIMES excitement can get one to do overly ambitious, maybe even silly things that can make you look foolish.

For example, the intoxicating excitement of learning that I would be travelling to the Far East last December got me so thrilled that I decided to learn Mandarin; after all, how hard could it be?

The answer to that question turned out to be that after six weeks of diligently dancing with Duo, the mascot for the language app, I had seen a lot of Mandarin, heard a lot of Mandarin, done many, many Mandarin drills, but was only confident enough to say “hello” in Mandarin.

But not to be put off, I was determined to at least say “ní hào” once during the time that I was on distant shores. One day on a hiking path I noticed a group of locals coming my way, and my drills kicked in. “Ní hào … ní hào … ní hào,” I practised in my mind.

Boy were they going to be impressed!

As the group approached, I smiled and nodded in greeting, but before I could open my mouth, they called out an enthusiastic “jóusàhn”. I panicked and responded, “Oh hello”.

Apparently ‘jóusàhn’ means ‘good morning’ in Cantonese. Who knew?

Ja nee, I have always resisted learning an additional language, especially informally. Why? It happened here in Kimberley that I heard of a young lady who came to our city from England. She so much wanted to impress her colleagues that at an after-hours, informal work function asked how to greet – in the most affable, friendly way – in Afrikaans.

Her new friends, of course, taught her.

On Monday morning she walked into the office and in an almost musical voice, with perfect diction said, “’n lieflike goeiemôre al julle droë drolle!”

You can imagine the response. See why people have trust issues these days?

The other thing that bugs me is how easily words can be misunderstood and often twisted. These days you don’t know if what you’re saying is being understood by your listeners anymore. Because attention spans have been truncated by constant theatrical entertainment and doom-scrolling, minds seem to have the tendency to shut off before what someone is saying has been fully said, so we respond to what we assume people are saying to us.

It’s like we don’t listen anymore; rather, we wait for our turn to speak.

And even when we are not literally speaking we are constantly bombarding others with information – daily picture greetings, endless video clips, jokes, memes, ‘forwarded’ messages and some media ‘forwarded many times’ cause our phones to beep, bleep and boing seemingly without end.

These days I have resorted to posting messages on my social media walls or statuses instead of pelting my contacts with direct messages, giving them the option of taking a look at what’s on my mind if and when they want; I consider it more respectful to give folk that room.

Now, in conclusion, whenever I use the word “literally” as I did just a paragraph back, I get the giggles.

‘Literally’ is one of those special words that people use, wishing with all their might that it meant something else. But, unfortunately for these folk, ‘literally’ literally means ‘literally’.

That may sound condescending, but I also have a special word that I absolutely adore. I just love the sound of it, and I wish it meant something else. But unfortunately I cannot have, for example, a calligraphy studio called “Lance’s Logistics” because the word ‘logistics’ has to do with the transport of goods and services. And as much as I want it to mean what I want it to mean so I can use it every day, I am never going to have my wish.

But I am not the only one with this problem. Theologian and author Graham Maxwell tells the story of a woman who told her pastor one day that there is a word in Scripture that warms her heart, feeds her soul and peppers her prayers simply because of the beauty of its tones.

The minister enquired of the lady, “Pray tell, what word is it that moves you so?”

“Oh pastor, it’s that beautiful word ‘Mesopotamia’,” she replied.

Laugh if you must, but remember that we are all prone to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misconception, especially if we are not speaking the ‘same language’. So these days it would pay to make sure we understand statements we hear and read before accepting them.

For example, in May last year the district municipality in Warrenton estimated that water would be restored to the town by June. However, in reality by August the residents of Warrenton were still high and dry.

More recently, as elections loom on the horizon, a certain political party leader has vowed that his party will fix the Eskom crisis, while in our city residents have been assured that within three to six months the water supply in Kimberley will be stabilised.

I sincerely hope that what we are hearing and what those who made these promises are saying comes from the same ‘book’. It would be horribly disappointing if these vows, promises and assurances are simply political phrases aimed at winning voters’ favour ahead of May’s elections

I mean, imagine – like it used to be 30 years ago – being able to flip a switch or turn on a tap without wondering if you’re going to be left high, dry and disappointed like just another droë drol!

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