Tuesday, 22 May 2012

OJ in the Waldorf Towers

Intercultural Musing's focus is quite eurocentric. That's because I know Europe - and I like it a lot. I have, however, been to other continents, Africa, Asia -  and to America: Once. (Uproarious laughter in the background.) I would definitely go again, as that visit was truly memorable.

It was 1995 and the OJ Simpson trial was in full swing. My husband was on secondment to one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world. We were staying in the Waldorf Towers, the... well the posh bit of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (/http://www.waldorfnewyork.com/towers-accommodations/) From the bedroom we looked out onto the marvellous Art-deco spire of the Chrysler building, Fifth Avenue was suddenly more than just a name, and I spent my first days firmly mid-town, as I was terrified by both the underground and the yellow cab drivers.

As for the O.J.Simpson trial - I'd heard of it at home, but was less than interested. There seemed to be a certain amount of sensationalism involved but as I'd never heard of the accused, and none of the words that seemed to cling to the reportage - "Bronco, Juice, LAPD" meant the slightest thing to me. So by the time I'd arrived in New York I'd forgotten about it.

In the Towers, you have complimentary access to the "Astoria Lounge", a huge space right at the top where you can admire the view,sit and write during the day, but more importantly, you also have round-the-clock access to delicious snacks and drink..
There is also a TV. At breakfast time, this was invariably turned onto the OJ trial. And people were totally spellbound. "Hey, there's Marcia!!", somebody called, and absolutely everybody fell silent. "Marcia?" I thought. But of course I couldn't ask, couldn't ask anything as it would have been a lot like asking "So who is this fascinating Herr Hitler one hears so much about these days?" in 1942. So I kept quiet, and just thought and commented how odd those Americans were. Not only did they wear the most eyebrow-raising casual clohes ever seen in a posh hotel, they also got over-excited about some court trial of an unknown celebrity. Phhh, I thought.

When I was back, something odd happened to me. New York had got ("had gotten") under my skin. That town, it was just incredible - the history! What were people always saing America had no history?! There, you were walking right in it! The 1930's sky scrapers, the little churches in-between, the ethnic quarters...  the Beauty!
AND: I became obsessed with the OJ Simpson trial. I read every book I could find, became conversely knowledgeable about the minutest detail of the court proceedings, and to this day could probably win any Mastermind competition on the subject.

All these diverse impressions didn't hang together, and left me curious, so.... yes, America -you taught me quite a lot in terms of intercultural awareness!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The British Expat in Germany - A Caricature

If you're asking me like that - yeah, course I miss Lowestoft, I mean who wouldn't. But Germany pays the bills - get my drift?

Mostly, I just speak English with them. But yeah, my German is pretty good
"Eynah Tassah Tay bittah!"

Talking of which - you can't get a decent cuppa here - not like home, like!

Germans have no sense of humour. None. I got this great act where I goose-step through the office, right arm stretched out. But nobody laughs. Ever. Dig that!

They don't have ticket barriers here on the underground. So - obviously you save a lot of money. If a ticket inspector comes round, I just play dumb and say I'm a British tourist. Works every time!

I do a bit of freelancing for the Guardian. Easy: Either I say "Eurozone- Only 10 days left", or I get the neighbour's kid to hold up a Hitler picture. They love it. Mind you, they don't pay.

The Germans don't have proper pubs. Nothing like Friday night in Lowestoft. The whole gang - Tyson, DavyB, Beamer, Vomit and me, yeah! Get the boys over here soon, that'll be fun!

German supermarkets are crap. All fruit 'n stuff. Nothing decent. Mushy peas? Forgeddit!Not even something as basic as spaghetti in a tin. I mean, that's everyday food. But no - zilch.

I'll qualify for unemployment benefit, yup - done my year's work soon. Can't wait! Get my tax back innit, only fair!

When I go back to Lowestoft, I go by train. Just hide in the loos, so they don't spot you. And then I've got them ferry vouchers from the Daily Mail. Cheaper than Ryan Air anytime!

They've got those honesty boxes here. What's that mean you ask. It means a free newspaper for me every day, that's what it means!

Everything's on time here. Trains, boss, colleagues. Me? Naah, I'm not so anal.

Going back? Are you insane, man?

Monday, 7 May 2012

A Language Post for People Who Don't Know Much About Language

I had quite a curious experience yesterday which prompted me to write about language as one would not normally do it. I noticed that people who can speak foreign languages and those who don't have an entirely different way of thinking of them.

The occasion was this: Somebody was trying to find an appropriate translation of the phrase "Make yourselves known to me" into German. Not an unsurmountable problem, you would think. Not like translating "Seinsvergessenheit" into Hungarian or such like. Still, as she was a writer, I wanted to suggest a translation that was both somehow "elegant",  context-appropriate, and short - maybe worth pointing out it all happened on Twitter. So I translated it as "Schickt mir einfach eine DM mit Name und Adresse". The person in question must have run this through Google translate and found it horrendously not matching her initial prompt. Or maybe Google Translate also came up with something inappropriate. In the end, she settled for: "Machen sie sich bekannt".

Which, needless to say, is somewhat hilarious.

So, it struck me, that people who have no notion of other languages, have a deeply ingrained trust of the word-by-word translation.What can possibly be wrong with that, they'd argue? "Kown" means bekannt. Make - machen. you =sie (or, in this context, but never mind those little things- Sie). So hey presto, a translation!

Nobody in their right minds would agree that this is an acceptable or even comprehensible translation of the original sentence. Yet people without language skills obviously need an assurance, an anchor if you like, that what they're "translating" is the actual words, and not something fancy.

I find this so weird, and almost unbelievable that I have trouble getting my brain round this way of thinking. The only time I think I ever did translations like that, was when we translated Latin texts at school.

A deep non-empathy with the workings of another language, or a belief that surely, all languages follow the rules of your own? As I say, difficult to track that line of thinking, but possibly a warning never to fall into this particular trap!