Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Healthy Train Stations?

I recently blogged about Google's Language Tools and how they approach the issues of translation. At the end of that piece, I mentioned I might post something about my translation gaffes. Here's a particularly memorable one:

In one of my previous lives I was a Czech linguist in the Army. In December of 1993 I was stationed in Darmstadt, Germany working for as an "Orderly Room NCO." It was rather like being an administrative assistant for the commander. One of my duties was to answer the phone. Answering one fateful call allowed me to go on a great trip.

The Call
This particular call was from a captain who was the commander of a chemical unit located in Vilseck, Germany. He told me he and four of his fellow soldiers had been chosen to make the first unit to unit contact visit with the 1st Chemical Defense Brigade of the Czech Army. They were getting ready to travel to Liberec in the Czech Republic to meet with officers there and discuss joint training exercises in Germany and the Czech Republic. Seeing that the Iron Curtain had fallen just a few years before, this was quite an historic event and the first of its kind between the U.S. and Czech Armies.

Not knowing anything about anything Czech, he asked if there might be someone in our unit who 
could go to Vilseck before their trip and talk to them about the people, culture and military courtesies "over there." He also mentioned they might like someone to travel with them on their visit in order to assist them during times when the official interpreter was busy and to help them make sure things went smoothly.

Might be someone? Of course there was - me! I tried not to show too much excitement, but this was a great opportunity to visit the country I had studied about and whose language I practiced for years. It was also a chance to be a small part of history, this being the first such military contact between the two Armies which until recently had been on opposite sides of the Cold War.

In the end, they invited me to come with them to the Czech Republic, and I very happily went along.

Getting Ready
Up to this point, I had studied and practiced the Czech language for nearly ten years. But, I had never traveled to the Czech Republic and I had never worked as a "live" interpreter. I knew I needed some advice on how to handle the situation. Fortunately, I had a good friend who worked as an interpreter and happened to live nearby. He had 3 pieces of advice for me:
  1. Carry a reporter's notebook and write down new words and phrases. This was the most useful thing he told me. I ended up using quite a few pages in the notebook he gave me.
  2. Tell the people to look at the person with whom they're speaking instead of at me. This made a lot of sense. Much face-to-face communication is non-verbal, so it pays to watch the person with whom one is speaking.
  3. If someone tells a joke, lean over and say to the other person in his/her language something to the effect of: "This person just told a joke which is very funny in his/her language, but makes no sense in yours. Please smile and pretend to laugh."

    It is interesting, though, many military-themed jokes which are funny to soldiers in one language are also funny in other languages. Army life is very similar no matter to which army one belongs, so many of the jokes are very similar. I didn't have to use this advice as often as I might have in another situation.
What he did not tell me was how to handle things when you completely botch a translation. That I had to learn on my own.

The Trip
We took the train to Prague and were picked up by our hosts. They whisked us into an awaiting van and told us we were to stop on the way out of the city at the Czech Ministry of Defense offices to meet with the general in charge of all chemical defense troops.

We arrived at the Ministry of Defense building and were escorted to a meeting room which was set up for lunch. At first, we sat and ate and chatted about this and that. Towards the end of the meal, the general stood up and made a toast, wishing for a great era of cooperation.

There was a Czech lady assigned to the group who acted as the official translator. She was employed by the Ministry of Defense to translate manuals for Czech-made military equipment into English. Her English was impeccable and her interpretation abilities were excellent (despite the fact that she didn't think so). As we ate, she did most of the translating, while I jumped in from time to time as conversations moved around the table and to give her a chance to eat. She translated the General's speech quite nicely.

The Trip-Up
Then it was time for our group's leader to make a toast. I don't remember his exact words, though at the time I concentrated on them quite closely. He said something like: "I'm from a small town in the United States and I never thought I'd get to visit other countries to make new friends. I'm usually a man of few words, so please allow me to simply thank the soldiers of the Army of the Czech Republic for inviting us here to meet and to start an era of mutual cooperation and education. We are all very happy to be here and know our countries will enjoy mutual friendship for many, many years. Cheers."

It was that last word which tripped me up. You see, the phrase I intended to translate as "cheers" in Czech is "Na Zdravi" (NAH ZDRA-vi) or "to your health." This short phrase is very similar to the word "nádraží" (NAH-dra-zhee) which means "train station." You can guess which one I said.

One of the Czech officers sitting across from me when I said this caught on very quickly. He almost blew beer through his nose as he choked and pretended to cough an a vain attempt not to laugh. His eyes tripled in size, and as I looked over at him I knew what I had done. I looked across the table and asked him in Czech, "I said, 'train station' didn't I?" He nodded and pretended to cough again to hide his chortling.

At that moment I was mortified. Here we were, visiting ambassadors of the United States Army meeting with Generals and Colonels of the Czech Army hoping to successfully kick off an era of friendship and cooperation and I blew it right at the outset. I didn't even notice if anyone else caught my mistake.

Of course, it was really quite funny. For the rest of  our visit, any time there was a toast to be made, that officer and I would raise our glasses and quietly say "train station."


  1. Nice story, and since I tend to use the word cheers a lot, it'll stick with me. As the news story we tweeted about today and your story both show, people often make mistakes when trying to communicate. A healthy sense of humour can make up for a lot.

    Train station!

  2. The news story Barbara is referring to came out earlier in the day before I posted this item: Esso and Tchibo stop ad campaign with Nazi slogan. It seems Esso and Tchibo picked the slogan Jedem das Seine, a version of "to each his own," which also hung above the entrance to Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald near the city of Weimar. An unfortunate slogan, which has also been chosen by other companies in the past.

    She is right that we have to laugh at ourselves sometimes. Communication between people is often a comedy of errors.