Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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Lost in translation

The most mystifying language you encounter
abroad may be the locals' attempt at English

When I recently checked into a hotel in Granada, Spain, the charming woman at the front desk excused her poor English and confided that she often had trouble with her bowels when speaking the language. This intimate bit of information took me aback; it seemed a tad forward considering the short duration of our relationship, which was about two minutes.

I was about to suggest laxatives when I realized it wasn't her bowels she was having trouble with, but her vowels. Actually, it was mostly her consonants. Like most Spaniards, she saw little difference between "b" and "v" and pronounced both as "b." So I gave her a quick English-language lesson, which left her looking somewhat bewildered.

When I finally got installed in the room, I found a printed notice addressing me as their "estimated client" and in the following sentence cautioning that there would be "fiduciary penalty's for destructions like for example a cigarets holeburn on the sheet."

The reason I had taken a room in this particular hotel was that it sported a large banner over the front door with this inviting sign: "Air-conditions?" Of course, I had forgotten to ask what the question mark stood for, but I soon found out. They didn't have any. Air-conditioning units, I mean -- at least not in the rooms they showed me. But they were planning to have some units installed the following summer. They even had a sign that said "Many of our rooms are being reformed."

In the end, they did find one room with an ancient and very noisy unit. Attached to the front of it was this handwritten notice: "If you want conditions of cold or warm in the room, please control yourself."

I was reminded of a time in Budapest, back in the bad old days, when I inquired at a hotel's reception desk about air-conditioning in my room. "Of course," said the receptionist with a smile. "We may be Communists but all our rooms are equipped with, uhm... air conditioning. It works like this." He winked, grasped a button on his shirtfront between his fingers and moved his hand swiftly back and forth, making his shirt billow in and out. "It's called Hungarian air-conditioning and it comes at no extra charge." As I turned to leave I thought I heard him mutter under his breath: "We are going to bury you."

One time in Amsterdam I strolled through an outdoor flea market. One stall was run for the benefit of an animal protection society and was selling a large, used, electric meat slicer. When I pointed out the irony to the woman in charge, she answered, "No, no, not irony stainless steel."

Tour of Babel
There are thousands of different languages in the world and a whole slew of additional dialects, so it's little wonder that tourists visiting foreign countries are frequently stumped by the local vernacular. Try, for instance, to dissect one of those German compound words like Wirtschauftverwaltungshauptamt or put your tongue around the Danish rødgrod med fløde (red berries with cream). And how about trying to produce the Zulu click sounds that Miriam Makeba made famous.

Thankfully there is a whole lexicon of words that, with a little verbal tweaking, are universally understood: coffee, toilet, wine, hotel, taxi, Internet and so on. But then there are a slew of other tongue twisters that defy good sense. Take the word "turkey" (the bird), for example. In German it's truthahn, in Danish kalkun, in Spanish pavo and in French dinde. The Europeans really ought to get their act together.

In an attempt to help the foreign-language-challenged, hotels around the world are festooned with helpful notices written in what is supposed to pass as English but often leaves a reader totally mystified. Sometimes these signs seem to be written by the same people who masterminded Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Take this announcement in a Tokyo tailor's shop: "Because of big rush, we will execute customers in strict rotation." In the breakfast room of a French hotel was this sign: "Please profit from our pleasant and efficient self-service." Sounds good to me; we all know how snooty French waiters can be anyways. And you can forget about the tip.

It seems that manufacturers of hotel room signs and menus all take the same weird language course. This Tokyo hotel room sign is typical of the genre: "It is forbidden to steal the towels. If you are not the kind of person to do this please not to read this." I'm certain Franz Kafka would have appreciated that one.


I can sympathize with the authors of these signs. As a young man growing up in post-war Europe I had to learn several foreign languages in school and I quickly found out that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Familiar with a smattering of French, I had gone looking for a hotel room in Paris. I found that they all sported signs that said complet.

It was late and I was getting desperate but, as luck had it, I came across a charming little hotel with a sign that said "plus de chambres." Just the ticket, I thought: more rooms. Wrong. It means exactly the opposite: no rooms. Go figure. I ended up sleeping under the Pont Neuf for a night or two.

Menus Minus the Meaning
Many restaurants get around the language problems by displaying colour photos of the various dishes. One inventive waiter I met in Spain had a thespian streak and acted out the entire menu like a game of charades. Flapping his arms for chicken, swim strokes for fish, "oink, oink" for pork and so on, followed by pointing at the appropriate part of his body; rump steak or pig snout for instance.

I found this warning in the menu of a French restaurant: "If you order the roulade you are obliged to have the soup." At least it didn't add "there will be no dessert unless you eat all your broccoli." Thank God we live in the land of freedom fries and free choice.

What about this bit of mouth-watering menu literature from Russia: "Limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the shape of a finger." Really fires up the taste buds. Or "beef rashers beaten up in the country peoples fashion."

One hot afternoon when I needed a cold drink I saw a sign on a Seville storefront that seemed to say "bar biere" in crudely painted letters. It turned out to be a barbershop. Perhaps the Barbiere de Sevilla?

A Spanish menu offered these tempting delicacies: "Sandwic mounted of loin. Assortment of Iberians." And if you don't like that you can always go for the "bunny with fries" or the "black pudding sausage made from real blood." I wonder if they also have another kind that's made from the fake variety they use for horror movie bloodbaths out in Hollywood.

I recall this scene in a Florence restaurant which sported a "we speak English" sign. I asked the waiter in English for the spaghetti with puttanesca sauce (which translates as whore's pasta). For a moment he peered at me, obviously lost, then leaned real close, took out a lighter as if to light some non-existent cigarette of mine, pointed at his crotch and whispered, "upstairs."

At a campground in Germany's Black Forest, a sign indicated the following: "While staying at our campgrounds it is forbidden for members of the opposite sex, a man and a woman for example, to have sexual relations in the same tent unless they are married together for that purpose."

This PA announcement was made on a train: "The public display of lascivity is strictly forbidden in the corridors. If you need to be refreshed go to the café in car number 4."

The Spanish offer assistance of all sorts to those in need of legal counsel. This notice was posted in a Granada phone booth: "If you need of legal facilitate's please consult with an avocado, we will be glad to present you with list. Call us and asks for Jesus."

Don't you just love visiting foreign countries?


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