Cross Cultural Translation English to American and Back Again

IMG_2177New Orleans     Talking to my friends and hosts in the United Kingdom over the last ten days one of the things that was the most fun was the cross cultural English-to-English translation we had to do.  This is the kind of thing my dad would have found fascinating on my return from any trip overseas.

            Here’s my favorite thanks to Paulette Singer, who works as an organizer in the Barnet Borough of London.  While walking me through the West Hendon estates which is in the middle of a massive fight with developers, she gave me the derivation of the expression “daylight robbery.”  Of course from decades of experience working on the streets of the USA, I was sure as most of my compatriots would be, that a “daylight robbery” is simply the fact that you are being robbed during the day as opposed to the night, but that’s not the story.  It turns out that when a tenant was consistently late paying their rent in council or public housing that the council, acting as landlord, would board up the windows.  Tenants therefore called it “daylight robbery.”  Isn’t that great!

            The week I was in London was unseasonably hot and the news kept calling it an “Indian summer.”  My friends always assumed that an Indian summer referred to the British colonial experience in the Indian subcontinent.  Had more of them travelled to India, they probably would have suspected there was a problem since arguably from the northern climes, it’s almost always summer and sweltering in India.   I disabused them of that notion, pointing out that “Indian Summer” referred to the Native Americans.  Of course they all immediately consulted Ms. Google to see if I was pulling their legs, and without so much as a “thank you,” confirmed the insight.

            It was like that.  Another time someone talked about a “bricky” and that turned out to be a bricklayer and then chippy for carpenter, sparky for electrician, and so forth in sort of a weird infantilizing of these proud tradespeople of the working class, which surprised me.  I wasn’t sure what they might have called a plumber, but I knew better than to ask.

            I’ve mentioned before how easy it is to be confused.  When offered warm versus cold beer in Kenya, I had jumped to the conclusion that had to do with electrical power outages, rather than realizing it washed down from the UK.  In India urinal was pronounced ur-I-nal which I thought was an Indian adaptation until being informed on my first trip to Scotland that ur-I-nal was the accepted, common pronunciation.   Every once in a while the language translations are surprisingly simple.   I knew better than to ask for a bathroom, but even when trying the Canadian “water closet,” a funny look would point the way to the toilet for a thankful change, calling a spade a spade.

            English may have become lingua franca in the modern world, but that doesn’t mean that coming from the United States we don’t need constant translation.  It’s kicks!

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