Greetings and Beachside Linguistics   2 comments


In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard struggles to master a greeting in an alien language.  The last time it was attempted by a starship captain, he botched it, and the aliens withdrew from contact for decades.  At the end of the episode, Picard delivers it flawlessly, and the alien responds that he is honored to be greeted in his own language.

I recently observed the impact my words have on a global audience.  In the span of 24 hours, my words reached around the world, towards people whose native language I do not speak.  Yet I made it a point to try and welcome them in their own native tongue – or at least that, assisted by Google.  When possible, I try to do this in real life, too.  Why not?  Making the effort to speak even a couple of words in someone else’s language can make all the difference in friendship.  Even if you botch the attempt, you are reaching out to them…  And assuming that a greeting is not syntactically or phonetically similar to a mortal insult, you have little to lose, and the results can be quite rewarding.  My barista at Starbucks is of Russian descent.  A couple months ago, I said “спасибо” when she gave me my drink.  To see her eyes light up, and realize that someone made the connection of her accent and where she lives, was well worth it.  I really want to learn more Russian now, to see her light up like that again.

Of course, then there are the dangers of using machine translation, like I normally am forced to.  Several years ago, working a problem that had no fuctional technical solution within an acceptable timeframe, I became frustrated.  As is my occasional habit to try and vent frustration harmlessly, I pushed something like “Please go pound sand, comrade” into the Google Translate engine, selected Russian, and pasted the resulting output into my email for a humorous punchline…  hitting send without a second thought.  Big mistake.

One of my coworkers at the time spoke Russian.  He responded “You might actually have wanted to say [this],” he said, putting the actual Russian phrase in there, “because what you actually said litterally translates as ‘Please pass the pound of sand, comrade.'”  Of course, this was a moment of great hilarity in my team, and when someone on our team is asked to do something that is annoying, difficult, or technically impossible, my snark, often as not, is “Ask them to please pass the pound of sand, comrade.”

For the record, I should state that I only speak two languages fluently – English, and Bad English.  Anything else is as likely as not to be a mechanical translation, and I apologize in advance if I ask you for sixteen ounces of granulated silicon.

Posted February 28, 2012 by mec in Uncategorized

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