The Charms of Written English (Satis Shroff)
Words and expressions change their meanings when a language leaves its native environment and the meanings change and are lost in translation, creating embarrasing, humorous situations. Speech is a cacophony of noises, rhythms and tunes, whereas the printed page is what it is. English is a global language spoken by almost 2000 million people. Daniel Defoe defined this hybrid language as a mixture of “Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.”
Spoken English is one thing, but written English can be just as charming and amusing for the world is not full of academicians, and while travelling to other countries you do come across expressions that you might find baffling, amazing, ridiculous, funny, and sometimes they make no sense. They reflect the way other people use English in everyday situations during holidays, and especially in hotels.
When you visit Germany’s Black Forest you might chance to see a sign: “It is strictly forbidden on our Black Forest Camping Site that people of different sex, for instance men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for that purpose.”
You are inclined to think: are the Schwarzwälder so prude? Every Baggersee, which is the German term for a lake, has its FKK beach. It’s not the Black Forest I’ve known. One sees naturalists living and sun-bathing comfortably in their natural and simple surroundings, without anyone raising as much as an eye-brow. No one cares if it makes the rest of us ‘unnaturalists.’ Sex is a never-ending topic, which makes sexology for many people the most fascinating of all ‘-ologies.’ We love ice-cream in summer, we fall in love, make love, and the word remains a magical distributing word.
In an article I’d mentioned that my German grandma used to call 007 “Rogger Mooray” because she didn’t speak English. When F. Eugene Barber, CEO Las Vegas, heard that he said, ‘The Italians do that as well. When they come to America, they tend to add a vowel to each major word. I looked in an Italian dictionary many years ago—I now understanda whata they isa talkina abouta.”
He went on the say, ‘Some things come across okay. We say ‘He sleeps like a log’ and a German would say ‘Schlafen wie ein Murmeltier’ and that makes sense. ‘Brand new’ translates the same way and has the same identical meaning—brandneu!’
In a Zürich hotel (Switzerland) was a notice: ‘Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.”
A lovely idea on the many uses of a hotel lobby. They certainly aren’t prude out there in Switzerland, you might think.
If married people had extra-marital sexual relationships, the women invariably had lovers and the men had mistresses. Today both men and women have lovers.
On the menu of a Swiss restaurant you could read: “Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.” Sounds rather depressing, doesn’t it? What the hotel-manager has done here is to put his best foot forward and make a literal translation of “sich nicht zu wünschen übrig lassen.”
A very elaborate way of saying that their wines are great.
In another menu at a Polish hotel in Warsaw you read: “Salad a firm’s own make; limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people’s fashion.”
I’ll take the roasted duck let loose. Isn’t there bird-flu at the moment? But would you earnestly like to have beef rashers really beaten up, like they do it in the countryside? The poor creatures. You might have the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after you.
Oh, Paris is so lovely in springtime. Outside a Paris dress shop you read: “Dresses for street walking.”
Street walkers are women who belong to the oldest profession in the world. That is really walking on thin ice. Near the Moulin Rouge pavement? Oh, no. I’m sure you don’t want ‘dresses for street walking.’
Apropos dresses, you know the Collosus of Rhodes. At a Rhodes tailor-shop you could read the sign: “Order your summer suits. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.”
How ghastly! I thought Greece was the cradle of democracy, with freedom of movement and speech. Aren’t they in the European Union? Have to ring up Brussels.
Ah yes, Rome: the city of Romulus and Remus and the magnificent pieta and Michaelangelo sculptures of Leonardo da Vinci. In modern Rome, you could read at a laundry: “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.”
We Germans call it FKK, Free Körper Kulture, that is, nude in the city of Rome with all those Paparazzis and Latin Lovers. To visitors from the USA it’s ‘sex in the city,’ I presume. What a thought under the blazing Italian sun, and what an exquisite translation from Italian into English. It just takes your breath away.
At a Czech tourist agency you could read: “Take one of our horse-driven city tours – we guarantee no miscarriages.”
You associate the word ‘miscarriage’ with bringing forth babies prematurely before they had a chance to even breathe. The guarantee was plainly for mishap that might occur along Prague’s Charles Bridge. What a healthy ride for grown ups. I’ll have to tell that to my friend Bruno Käshammer, who’s a gynacologist.
In a Swiss mountain inn one was confronted with: “Special day – no ice cream.” I can very well imagine it, with snow and icy peaks, snow-bound valleys and spurs in the Swiss countryside and apre-ski.
At a Copenhagen airline ticket office you were confronted with this message: “We take your bags and send them in all directions.”
Oh-my-God! How do I get my bags back? This happens all the while, but to admit it officially in Denmark, that’s really honest. At least they don’t say whether the machine or the personnel were responsible for the mistake.
On the door of a Moscow hotel room was a message: “”If this is your first visit to the USSR, you are welcome to it.
Otherwise, nyet? You are reminded of Ian Fleming’s protagonist: once is happenstance, twice is coincidence. Thrice is enemy action. Russia doesn’t like tourists who come again and again like rubber balls and argue with: “Because it’s there. It’s so cheap when you have dollars to throw around. I love the KGB and Siberia’s Gulag.”
At a cocktail lounge in neighbouring Norway you can read: “Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.”
Do children like cocktails? Some pregnant ladies must have taken one for the road and had to deliver in the bar. You can imagine what jolly names the babies must have had: Tequilla Nabokov, Vodka Vasilsky, Scotch McGregor.
In a Paris hotel elevator you could read: “Please leave your values at the front desk.” Can you leave your worth, principles and standards in the front desk of a hotel in Paris, the City of Love? Your ‘valuables’ was what the hotel management wanted to convey to its guests.
And in a hotel in Athens: “Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 am daily.”
Which leaves you wondering: what if one doesn’t?
Found in a Serbian hotel: “The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid.” By Jove! What a job. A wonderful translation from the serbo-croatian language, which obviously might create consternation, panic or shock waves among the young chamber-maids in Belgrade.
In the lobby of a Moscow hotel, on the other side of a Russian Orthodox monastery, you could read: “You are welcome to visit the cemetery where the famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists, and writers are buried daily except Thursday.”
I see. Is that why there are hardly any intellectuals left?
Winter has been banished in the Alpine countries after the Fasnet carnival celebrations and in an Austrian hotel which catered to skiers was a note: “Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.”
Boots of ascension? Oh, you mean climbing boots? What a charming way to describe a pair of Bergstiefeln, Wanderschuhe or trekking shoes.
In a Belgrade hotel elevator hung a piece of paper neatly typed with the message: “To move the cabin, push button for wishing floor. If the cabin should enter more persons, each one should press a number of wishing floor. Driving is then going alphabetically by national order.”
Americans first, please.
For the West, the Hungarians are East Bloc, for the East Bloc Hungry is more or less western. To the Hungarians they are a little bit of both. In a Budapest zoo there was a sign: “Please go not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.”
Hope he enjoys it, you might add. He must be on the Atkins-diet a long time.
In the office of a Roman doctor who had a medical degree from Perugia you could read: “Specialist in women and other diseases.”
‘Since when are women diseases?’ you might wonder. This physician must be a macho and chauvanist. Despite equal-pay legislation, women still earn less than men and are underrepresented in the professions and are engaged in office and welfare work. Germany is going with the times, and it is regarded as belittling a female when she’s described as a ‘Fräulein.’ The Fräuleinwunder is out. Every girl over eighteen is to be addressed as a ‘Frau’ in Germany. So don’t you ‘Fräulein’ the lady at the restaurant or at the October beer festival, if you want to pay the bill on your next visit to Germany. She’s a young lady, junge Dame, if you’re talking about her in the third person singular. The word ‘ladies’ is regarded by some as snobbish and genteel.
In Germany teenagers use the word ‘cool’ often. If it’s something they don’t like, they come up with: ‘Oh, how uncool!’
However, ‘cool’ in American jazz music means: retrained, relaxed or unemotional. If you are up-to-date, you’re cool and it has the same meaning as ‘laid-back.’
‘Dictionaries are among the noblest ventures of man the ordering animal, the only signposts we have in the great forest of words which we wander all our lives,’ said Gerald Long, BBC. If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant. If what said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone. Like Shakespeare said: There’s much virtue in ‘if’.
If you said so, then I said so. If you didn’t, neither did I.