Much more misunderstandings than bad intentions

Geert van de Ven Translation: Alexandra Jandausch (Bilingual Solutions)

? trainer Nederlands/Dutch (NT2)
? Nederlands/ Dutch voor buitenlandse professionals/for non-native professionals
? eigenaar/owner Dutch in Dialogue

The linguist John Gumpertz did research on cultural misunderstandings in everyday encounters in the 1980s. In a video recording, dating from the days of the post office, a Pakistani man says to an English powtal clerk “I WANT ten stamps NOW.” The words in capital letters are stressed in the utterance. So, the Englishman’s response “Please, Sir?” is not a surprise. The reaction: “I WANT ten stamps NOW, PLEASE.” Of course, the word “Want” is an unfortunate choice of words and gets a lot of attention in the first instance. The newcomer would probably have been forgiven for his unfortunate choice of words, had the emphasis not been on the word NOW in the first place.

Small cues big consequences

foto unsplash

The whole conversation gives the postal clerk the impression of an overly assertive immigrant, who arrogantly lets the employee know that he is giving the orders from now on. “No English diplomacy whatsoever?.” In this case, there is no bad intention at all. The Pakistani man is just following the prosody of his native language Urdu which comes out a little too assertive in English. The stresses just fall in the wrong places. This is not about being overly assertive, or arrogant, but about small meaningful cues in the rhythm of speech that neither the post clerk nor the Pakistani customer are aware of. Small cues with big impact: an insulted post clerk and a customer who feels rejected. And perhaps even more important: no stamps for this customer. “Next please!”

Diplomacy pursued by other means

Recently, I overheard a conversation on the train, an innocent and very civil dialogue between two expats from Great Britain. “Oh the Dutch are so rude, never say please.” Maybe overhearing a conversation is a sign of my deep-rooted Dutch rudeness. As an excuse, I’d like to state that I am just professionally curious and that the words “Never say please” especially stuck with me. With John Gumpertz in my mind I arrived at a totally different conclusion when I got home. No, please is something that we do not say very frequently, but the full imperative “GEEF mij een biertje” (GIVE me a beer) is strongly marked in Dutch, especially if the tone is also demanding.

In Dutch, we soften this as follows: ‘Doe(t) (u) mij er nog maar eentje’, ‘Ja, graag, schenk(t) (u) me nog maar eens in. (Do me <maar> a little one”, “Yes, <graag>  I’ll have <maar eens> another one” What is striking here is that in Dutch imperative utterings are softened, as well, but uses other linguistic means than “alstublieft / please”. If as a native speaker of English, you are looking for literal equivalents of “please”, you will stand disappointed. You will be surrounded by a world of rudeness, full of Dutch uncles who keep telling you what has to be done.

‘Love’ with a less romantic intention

Translators are very aware of the phenomenon of “the same, but through different linguistic means”. If this awareness is not present, you end up with very strange experiences.

In a German cinema, a movie by the English filmmaker Ken Loach was shown in a dubbed version. The film was translated literally, the English “love” was translated as “Schätzchen”. It was an impressive film with hilarious misunderstandings: The film was intended much less romantic than the German version implied.