This post is published in the ‘Live English’ channel which provides content for our Global English crowd: international users of English. Many things are lost in translation between one culture and another, using English as the lingua franca. Over the year we’ll ask questions that in some way pertain to translation and understanding. We did this last year and got some fabulous posts as a result. This month we’ve been talking about politeness and the question we asked of our bloggers was:
In your experience (personal or professional) what has entertained/ confused/ struck you in terms of politeness in translation?
And here are some answers:
You know those little double-sided notices that you get in hotel rooms, with the original text on one side and a translation on the other: “No smoking”, “Use your towels again and help us save the world”, that kind of thing?
Well, here’s one I liked so much that I stole it from a Warsaw hotel which shall remain nameless. One side says “Uprzejmie prosimy o zdeponowanie cennych rzeczy w sejfie znajdującym się w Recepcji hotelowej. Hotel nie odpowiada za rzeczy pozostawione w pokoju.” This is a request for guests to deposit their valuables in the safe in the hotel reception, plus a disclaimer of responsibility for belongings left in the room. The beginning: “>Uprzejmie prosimy” (“We politely request”) is a standard formula for this kind of message. The word I really want to draw your attention to, though, is ‘rzeczy’, a neutral, all-purpose word meaning things, objects, items:
cenne rzeczy – valuable items
rzeczy pozostawione w pokoju – items left in the room
Now let’s turn it over and look at the English version. It starts off well: “We kindly ask you to deposit all your valuables in the hotel safe located in the Reception.” They’ve made good lexical choices, the tone’s appropriate, and they’ve successfully used a verb pattern that’s quite different from the Polish one. But then comes the second sentence: “Our hotel is not responsible for stuff left in the hotel room.”
‘Stuff’ is of course an immensely useful word, but you’ve got to be careful with it because there’s something disparaging about it, and here it has the presumably unintended effect of causing a dramatic shift in the tone of the message when it’s applied to your jewellery, computer and so on; suddenly, your precious valuables are reduced to the same status as the discarded newspapers, bottles and packaging that you leave behind. Sensitive guests might even feel offended, perhaps. Me, I just laughed out loud. (I didn’t have any valuable stuff with me, anyway.)
Negative questions are an interesting one. In English they generally indicate that something isn’t quite as it should be, and they often express mild irritation. So ‘Can’t you hurry up?’ might suggest I’m a bit peeved in a way that ‘Can you hurry up?’ wouldn’t. But in parts of Central and Eastern Europe a negative question can make questions more ‘polite’. So you might say something like ‘Aren’t you ready yet?’ instead of ‘Are you ready yet?’ when you want to sound extra pleasant and helpful. ‘Are they nagging me?’ we think, but of course they’re not. Oh what a tricky business politeness can be!
When I was learning German and Spanish at school (more years ago than I care to remember!) I was always fascinated by the verbs duzen and tutear, meaning ‘to address someone with the informal ‘you’ pronoun’. I’ve always thought it quite sweet and clever that a whole issue of grammatical formality could itself be neatly and entirely embodied in just one, single linguistic item.
When I taught English as a foreign language to adult students, my students (mostly Scandinavians) were always confused about levels of subtlety. For those that had English-speaking bosses, the boss might say, “Have you thought about doing X?” My students said that they would think about doing X but then reject it because they didn’t want to or didn’t see the point, but then the boss would get angry. What my students didn’t understand is that for an English-speaking person to say “Have you thought about doing X?” this actually meant “Do X.” Here, the request was couched in a polite question, which non-native speakers took to mean that it was just that, i.e. a question, and not an actual order.