22 November 2011

700th blog post: English and the problem of communicating with foreigners

First, a very big thank you to everyone who came up with ideas after my Twitter appeal about my 700th blog post. There were so many good ones, plus some funny and some verging on the obscure, that I was initially tempted to reproduce the list (below) and leave it at that:
  1. What, in your opinion, is the greatest speech ever - and why? @MartinShovel
  2. Sound-bite culture and the death of political oratory? @lordbonkers
  3. Relationship btw written text and spoken word? @dirkvl
  4. How should scientists address the public? @nhsgooroo
  5. How to keep your presentation fresh after you've done it 700 times @podiumcoaching
  6. How about something involving 7 - like your 7 favourite posts from the last 699, or your top 7 tips for a public speaker? @philpresents
  7. What about great female speakers? Or what attributes women have to be powerful speakers versus their male cntrprts. @frankluempers
  8. "Why?", "10 things I learnt thru blogging", "If I started again...", "The next 300..." ... ;-) @cuchullainn
  9. 1400th century history as it was 700 years ago. @campbellclaret
  10. Speeches that aren't famous but should be. What have we missed that was amazing? @karinjr
  11. The impact of luck on your life -- Lucky #700 or reverse the no's & be cryptic as in 007. @wendycherwinski
  12. Something I've always remembered from 1 of yr books - why audiences pay less attention than indivs. Always stuck with me @DillyTalk
  13. Speechmaking in multilingual events @HadleighRoberts
  14. Using religious imagery/metaphors in public speaking? @carlquilliam
  15. A recap of your favorites or most popular posts @TravisDahle
  16. How about a post highlighting your 10 favorites? It would be nice to "unbury" those posts & give them new life @MrMediaTraining
  17. Studyof rhetoric in The Lord's Prayer @aaronwood
  18. "The 7 Deadly Sins of The Lonesome Speaker"? @MarionChapsal
  19. After 700 posts, what haven't you written about? @johnwatkis
  20. Something hearkening back to order in the court? Categorisation in the production of contrast pairs? @Edward_Reynolds
  21. "On lists of 10, counting, numbers and facts" @Edward_Reynolds
  22. Consider issues raised in my field e.g a speaker makes a joke, the EN audience laugh, the FR needs interpret. & laughs... @HadleighRoberts
  23. Also, given your emphasis on words and structure, does interpreting (meaning and concepts) ultimately ruin a speech? @HadleighRoberts
  24. There's an idea for your 700th post: write it in French! @philpresents
  25. Voilà une idée qu'elle est bonne! @MarionChapsal
  26. What about guest bloggers from all around the world? The 7 Continents Blog Post! @MarionChapsal
  27. Blog in Franglais? Will look forward to seeing where you put the "Focus" @spek2all
  28. Speeches delivered in langs other than English/translated great speeches? @nhs999
  29. How about something on comic timing? Just enjoying fellow Liverpudlian Ken Dodd on TV @LordRennard
So plenty of inspiration there to keep me blogging for a while.

I'll resist the temptation to blog in French, as suggested by Phil Waknell (24) and Marion Chapsal (25). But the question of how we ever manage to communicate effectively with people who speak different languages is an interesting one, especially for native speakers of English who tend to assume that everyone else speaks it too.

'Simplification' isn't always the answer
The first time I ever spoke at a conference where most of the audience were non-native speakers of English, I quickly became aware that they weren't understanding much of what I was saying. So I started to make it simpler - or so I thought.

In retrospect, I realised that my pitiful attempt to make things 'simpler' had led me to use more and more slang and colloquial expressions than I would ever normally do in an academic lecture. These may have made it easier for the native speakers of English to understand, but had made it far more more difficult for everyone else.

Translate jokes or tell the audience to laugh?
A former colleague of mine, who was a fluent speaker and teacher of Russian, used to be hired to do simultaneous translation for visitors from the (then) Soviet Union at major civic events. One of his problems was that the speeches by 'locals' often included jokes that he found quite impossible to translate.

His solution was to say in Russian something along the lines of "he's just told a joke that I can't translate into Russian, so you had all better start laughing - NOW" - which apparently worked well enough for the locals to think that their guests had both understood and appreciated the joke they'd just heard.

What did they really mean?
I once worked with a graduate student, whose bilingual abilities in English and Japanese enabled her to earn fees that more than paid for her higher education. On one occasion when she got back from a high level business meeting where she'd been doing simultaneous translation from Japanese for her British clients, I asked her how it had gone.

"OK as far as it went - but I do think that they should pay me for an extra hour afterwards to tell them what I think they really meant."

Does it matter?
With so much hanging on recent meetings between Euro-zone leaders, not to mention other important 'conversations' taking place elsewhere in our ever more 'globalized' world, a question that comes to mind is: how much should we worry about our reliance on simultaneous translation and/or the pretence that everyone speaks or understands English as well as we do?

1 comment:

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