Friday, December 21, 2007

Ich bin gut

A direct translation of the words of a sentence from your first language to another language you are not fluent at, may not necessarily convey the same meaning all the time. In fact the results can be disastrous. Even the same words of a language can mean completely different things in different countries. You have to love these little idiosyncrasies of languages - how else can you inadvertently create a funny situation. Wit or humour is after all, mostly a play of words. Cruel, though it may sound, it is even more humourous if it is unintentional.

A friend from Germany, CL, who I met last weekend at Vermont narrated an interesting story. She and a few of her non-German friends had gone to a restaurant in Germany. The waitress came by to do the usual checking on them mid-way during the meal and asked them if they needed anything. In an attempt to say 'I am good', one of CL's friends translated it literally into German and said 'Ich bin gut'. Which in itself is an innocuous looking statement to the non-German speaking layman . But, CL tells us that although literally it does mean 'I am good', the underlying meaning is 'I am good at sex'. Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing, but it depends a lot on the context and who you are saying it to and also their reaction to your claim. In the rare possibility that I end up in a German prison, I know what 3 words I am never going to say. Also, on a side-note, I must say that I don't vouch for the authenticity of this information because CL seemed slightly inebriated when she narrated this anecdote.

Another interesting word that comes to mind is 'fag'. Although it is a derogatory word for a gay person in the US, the word, in India,UK and some other countries is also (and mostly) used to describe a cigarette. "Where is Mike?", you may ask and you may get a reply, "He is in the balcony having a fag". You probably would not be blamed if you started to wonder about the homosexual, exhibitionist antics of poor Mike, who you thought was straight and prudish.

I don't know if this is true but I have heard this story of a guy from a company I used to work for in India, who came to the US on a business visa for 3 months. On his first or second day, he visited a McDonald's and ordered some kind of a meal. On being asked 'For here or to go', he had absolutely no idea what it meant. And of course, the question was repeated again. So he just replied that he was just here for 3 months and he would go back home to India after that. Unfortunately, the story ends there without us knowing whether he was able to get his meal or not. Niether do we know what the reaction of the employee behind the counter was. The words 'for here or to go' although it may sound quite intuitive to the average person in the US, but believe me, the meaning does not come across that clearly to someone not famililar with that phrase. And no, I was not 'the' person in that story.

And so, ladies and gents, when you are in a foreign country, think twice before you do a direct translation of a sentence or you may end up in situations you don't want to be in. And please give your friends the benefit of doubt, when you hear something outlandish about them.