Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Another Case of Lost In Translation

Last January I wrote about a translation gaffe I made during a trip to the Czech Repulic ("Healthy Train Stations"). Here's another one ...

In June of 1995 I was assigned to travel around the Czech Republic with the leaders of a large group of U.S. soldiers who acted as honor guards in cities and towns all across that country to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of their liberation from the Nazis. It was a great experience which I will cherish forever.

Towards the end of the trip, we ended up in the Eastern Bohemian city of Strakonice. It was a great place with friendly people and a large western style hotel, the Hotel Bavor. One morning, I had a small item which I wished to bring up with the front desk staff. Here's the conversation as it would have occurred totally in English:
Me: Excuse me, sir. There is a large spider building a home above the door outside my room.
Clerk: I beg your pardon? Please! There are no bats in the hotel.
Me: Yes, there are. One is building a web above the door outside my room. It's a large spider, as the web shows.
Clerk: I don't mean to disagree with you, but there are no bats in this hotel - none at all. We are regularly inspected for such things. Besides, bats don't build webs
Me: I'm sorry to argue, but there really is a large spider building a net above the door outside my room. I don't think it should be such cause for concern. Spiders are bound to get into the hotel. All you need do is kill it with a broom.
Clerk (rolling his eyes and looking at the bell hop): Why don't you go up with this gentleman and see this bat. I'm sure he's mistaken but we should make sure.
So, the bell hop and I get into the elevator and go up to my room. When we get there, I point to the large spider web above the door.
Me: See, there's the spider web.
Bell Hop: That's not a bat, that's a spider! It's a spider web, not a bat web.
Me (seeing the error I had made): Oh - spider! Not bat. I'm terribly sorry. Please excuse my misuse of the proper word in Czech.
For the rest of my stay in the hotel, I was known as "Mr. Bat." I prefer to think I was Bat Man.

Another Inspection Story

Inspections were a way of life in the military service. Uniform inspections, room inspections, barracks inspections, vehicle inspections ... lots of inspections. During my time in the Army, one of the worst was the dreaded I.G. Inspection.

I never understood who the I.G. was who was doing the inspecting. "I.G." stood for "Inspector General," but the Inspector General him/herself never actually showed up to do the inspections, it was always a bunch of sergeants. And they inspected everything. Unlike the normal inspections by First Sergeants, Commanders and whatnot, these guys moved furniture around, took mirrors off the walls, pulled covers off light fixtures and generally dug around all over the place. A fine-toothed comb doesn't even come close to describing what they did during their inspections.

One way to reduce the time spent in the room was to wax the floor to a very high shine. Apparently the shiny floor distracted them and kept them from digging around too much. Under normal circumstances, for normal inspections, the regular emulsion wax the Army supplied with a quick buff was good enough. For the I.G. inspection, though, some extra effort was needed.

The best trick to get the floor to shine almost like a mirror was to use Johnson Paste Wax. The exact method was passed from soldier to soldier. Here's the steps as I remember them - and don't try this at home:

  • Make a handle for the can out of a wire hanger. The handle can be fashioned a number of ways so long as it holds the can securely when held upright and tilted to the side.
  • Attach the handle to the can and open the can.
  • Light the wax on fire and allow some to melt.
  • Put the lid back on the can to extinguish the flames.
  • Pour a small amount of wax on the clean, dry floor in strategic locations around the room.
  • Buff the wax into the floor using a floor buffer with the brush attached.
  • Buff the floor again, only this time cover the brush with a woolly toilet seat cover.
With a little practice, you could have the floor almost good enough to shave with.

Oh, I forgot to mention this practice was strictly forbidden - for reasons you will soon plainly see.

I mentioned earlier that this trick was passed on from soldier to soldier. One time, I remember, it didn't work out quite so well for one guy. We were getting ready for the "Big Inspection." A few of us chipped in for a can of Johnson Wax and took turns with the buffer and the toilet seat cover. A new guy who just moved in across the hall was wondering what we were doing, lighting wax on fire and pouring the liquid onto the floor. We explained to him it was to get the floor as shiny as possible. He caught onto the idea quickly enough, so a couple of us "more experienced" guys gave him the quick rundown on how to do it. He decided he'd surprise his new roommates by waxing the floor while they were at chow.

We finished our floor and were relaxing after a hard day's work, when we hear a panicked "Oh shit!" from the room across the hall, immediately followed by what sounded like a fire extinguisher being discharged. We looked at each other, wide eyed, and ran out of our room into the hallway. There stood the new guy, fire extinguisher in hand, smoke floating out of the door to his room and into the hallway.

"How do you guys do that without lighting the whole building on fire?" was the question he asked. You see, we didn't exactly spell out to him the fourth step in my instructions above - "Put the lid back on the can to extinguish the flames." He misunderstood and thought we poured the BURNING LIQUID WAX onto the floor WHILE STILL ALIGHT.

The tragedy was lost on us as we had a good laugh at his expense. After the howling died down we got together and scrounged up a couple of extra blankets to replace the ones he partially torched so at least his roommates wouldn't have to explain to the I.G. why their bedding was singed and smelled of smoke. Unfortunately, he had to replace one roommates expensive gold-plated stereo cable out of his own pocket.