Monday 10 February 2020

*GUEST BLOG* Lost in translation…

Learning to speak a language that’s not your native is fun but can be challenging. At first you feel the thrill of learning new expressions and words and get excited when you can write or pronounce a whole sentence using the correct grammar.

As you learn more, you begin to understand that you actually know less. At least if you are willing to try to “feel” the language and the expressions its culture is built on. If you are a business traveller and often meet people from other countries, speaking in a language that is not your native one can be challenging.

I remember an international conference in Sweden when one of the delegates asked the Swedish hostess where the restrooms were. She looked devastated and apologized and told the gentleman that unfortunately there are no restrooms at the venue. Obviously, this wasn’t the case. She thought he wanted to rest his legs. If he were Swedish, he would have simply asked for the toilets. The man looked a bit shocked that he was to spend his next 48 hours at a place with no restrooms. Fortunately, other people who heard the conversation solved the situation.

Another time I used the old English expression “never look a gift horse in the mouth” (an old English saying
said to advise someone not to refuse something good that is being offered) while talking to a friend who was not from Britain. She totally misunderstood me and thought I meant she looked like a horse. This was cleared up between us once I managed to get through to her and explain what it meant and my love for expressions and idioms from other languages.

They say that all great relationships are based on dialog and empathy. Proper communication is key. When you watch the news and see reports from conflict areas such as the middle east and in this case Iran, you see clips where people are on the street screaming, burning flags and yelling “death to this” or “death to that”. As an outsider it looks terrifying and strange. Most of the time it is, both from a communication point of view and considering the victims and casualties. But I want to leave the subject of politics and focus on language and expressions.

Pontia Fallahi an American Iranian writer and travel blogger explains: 

“In this case saying “death to” anything sounds strange and flat out awful in English. Instead, English tends to damn people or send them to hell. Iranians, on the other hand, go straight for death, and these expressions just fit with Persian. Coming from an ancient poetic culture you’d think that we’d find a more lyrical way of expressions, but I guess death is, after all, the ultimate sacrifice. One minute we’re willing to die for you with phrases like (ghorbonet beram) and (fadât besham) (let me sacrifice myself for you), mimiram barât (“I love you”; literally “I’ll die for you”), or elâhi bemiram barât! (“I feel so bad for you”; literally “Oh God, may I die for you”). But if you get on their bad side, we will just as soon wish for your death”

And this is something that families and close friends can say to each other during an argument without really meaning it.

Understanding a language and getting the context will not bring world peace but trying to really listen and get the message from the other person’s point of view – whether you are a tourist, or a business traveller ­– would definitely facilitate many situations and improve relations.

Travel risk management is not just about physical safety. It’s also emotional and cultural. About understanding the context where the individual or group comes from or belongs to, regardless of whether it is from the Middle East or Scandinavia. That way you hopefully avoid frustrations, confrontations and genuine misunderstandings. All cultures and languages have examples of, or situations where, context is important, but I thought to mention this one since it is highly relevant now.

Jamie Tagharobi Product Marketing Manager

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