Lost in translation

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People come up to me and say Not again, Hamish. For the last time, we do NOT come up to you, we do NOT ask you questions, and we do NOT exist, so stop making us up and putting us in your articles!”… Hmm… Well, ok, so after they’re done ranting and raving for a while, they go on to ask “So, Hamish… How do you manage living in a country where you don’t understand the language?”

An excellent question, if I do say so myself… err… I mean… if they do ask it themselves… Anyway, it’s an excellent question, because very few people are as qualified to answer it as I am. I lived in Bangalore for close to seven years without learning their language, Kannada. The only Kannada I speak is the phrase that sounds like “Kannada gothilla” – which means – “I do not know Kannada”. And since December 2010, I’ve been living in UAE, where I continue living without learning their language, Arabic. The only Arabic I speak is the phrase that sounds like “Krrraghhphthuh” – which is closely how I sound like when I have a cold and spit into the sink. I don’t really know yet what it means in Arabic, but I’m pretty sure it is a valid phrase… I’ve heard it from people all around.

This is how they write "krrraghhphtuh" in Arabic... as far as I know.

This is how they write “krrraghhphtuh” in Arabic… as far as I know.


But thankfully, in both the UAE and Karnataka, I have always managed to get by without the local language… Usually, when a difficult situation arises – such as say, I need to know the price of an item at a store where the owner only speaks Kannada – I still get by with English. I just speak a bit louder, and a lot slower… I repeat the process with animated hand signals and gestures, until slowly, but surely, the owner nods understandingly and starts calling for security. So my point is…  you might want to stick to stores where they understand English.


But remember... Just because they spik Inglish... doesn't mean they speak English.

But remember… Just because they spik Inglish… doesn’t mean they speak English.

This is usually not a problem, especially in the UAE, a fairly cosmopolitan society where you can get by with English in most places. A knowledge of Hindi and Malayalam also seems to help. Most of the ads and billboards have English text along with the Arabic text by the side. So it’s easy for me to get by here. It isn’t as easy in Saudi Arabia.

During my trip to Saudi, I found that many of the ads and billboards were written in Arabic alone… as if it were aimed at the language purists of the country. In some cases, there would be some part of the ad in English, and the rest would be written in Arabic – these may actually end up more confusing than the pure Arabic ads in some cases. I remember this billboard by the highway – plain, white board with no pictures… just text in bold red lettering. It didn’t point out any specific brand name – at least none that an English-reading consumer could understand. Large Arabic letters graced the top half of the board, and the bottom half said in English “No.1 in paints”.

Now, I am not sure if the Arabic lettering was the name of a brand, in which case it seems like a pretty low key generic ad for the paint manufacturer… But since I had absolutely no clue what the Arabic letters meant, and I could only make out the “No.1 in paints” part of it, I reasoned it could also be a public issue warning about adulteration in paints. Perhaps unlikely, but I took no chances… I took care not to lean on any walls while I was in Saudi.


Public service announcement. Please don’t improvise on thinners… Pretty please.

Overall, you learn to manage with English, and try to use body language and tone to understand the messages. Body language can be extremely useful, and most people process them subconsciously all the time. It speaks a universal language, and very often, it speaks volumes. For example, no matter what language he speaks, if the speaker is standing with his hands on his hips, he is displaying aggression; if he has his arms across his chest, he is being defensive; if he’s tapping/ drumming his fingers on the table, he’s being impatient; If he’s using his hands instead to exert intense pressure on your neck, he’s trying to strangle you. You tend to catch up on these things.


Here, the body language says "Hey, you... empty your wallet and give me all your money."

Here, the body language says “Hey, you… empty your wallet and give me all your money.”

But sometimes, body language may not be easy to decipher either. Take the recent incident at the LGBT pride day in North Carolina. Around 2000 gay right activists marched the street dancing and screaming… And of course, they had the signboard protesters lined up with their protests because, hey it’s a free country, and they’re allowed to spew hatred and venom if they want to, right?



For a loving, caring God, he sure seems to hate everything.

One bona-fide, loony, bible-thumping preacher, 49-year-old James Edward Belcher, was belching out insults, judgment and condemnation at the merry marching men, women and others, when 74-year-old gay rights supporter Joan Parker kissed him on the cheek. Understandably, this took him by surprise, as loony bible-thumping preachers are not used to the gesture. In the larger world of sanity, the kiss on the cheek may be seen as an act of affection… In this case, however, it seemed to have been delved out of pity for the poor angry shouting preacher. But in the tinted eye of Belcher, this was an attack. Belcher intends to press charges for unwanted touching and assault.

A kiss is usally the kind of assault that men tend to tolerate… especially from a woman. It’s ironic that a catholic preacher, who presumably preaches Christ’s turn-the-other-cheek policy, is suing the kisser for ‘assault’ on his cheek. Equally ironic is the fact that someone who should be teaching people to respect their elders is complaining against someone 25 years his senior. It’s even more ironic that a rambling anti-gay male protester is pressing charges on being kissed by a woman. But since irony is seldom a good defense, Joan would likely have to use other tactics… For a bible-thumping preacher, I propose that we go biblical in this case… An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a kiss-on-the-cheek for a kiss-on-the-cheek.

Considering the vile venom he was spewing at the rally, I’d caution Joan to insist that he chews on some breath mints first… I’ll keep an eye out for billboards that say “No.1 in breath mints.”

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4 Responses

  1. Ginger says:

    WoW Hamish! #Winning! you didnt pull the plugs on this one. I loved how you tied everything together from language to body language to kiss to No1 in paints to No1 in mints.

  2. Ash says:

    Good one
    u didn’t spare the anti gay preacher, nor the staunch kanada or arab culturalists that would insist u speak their languages… me likes the honesty! 😉

  3. hammy says:

    Thank you. I like tying things together… It’s usually pleasant, apart from the muffled screams from the unwilling participants… But I guess you can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs.

    Well, of course I didn’t spare the anti-gay preacher… I plan to actually hire professional goons to stealthily follow him, and when they corner him in some dark alley, kiss him on the cheeks mercilessly. And of course I didn’t spare the stau… hey… I didn’t think I was taking a stab at the culturalists… But fine, I am against hatred of all kinds… Yes, I HATE hate… I absolutely abhor… hmm… something’s wrong there… If I hate all kinds of hate, I should be hating that hate too… Damn. Cyclic logic, we meet again!

  4. Rhine says:

    God…… a kiss soooo terrific???

    earlier it was a symbol of affection…… nw its been changed to aggression???? :-0

    I have even heard that in sm countries when we do a thumbs up its a bad signal… for us it means either “good job” or “well done” or “keep it up”…

    I think we should learn about the kinesics before learning the actual language…. 🙂

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