Potato Found In Translation!

Power, the ability to do and act, is the first meaning given of a very long list in my Complete Wordfinder. ‘Do’ and ‘act’ are also very long. The shorter the list, the fewer meanings are given for the word. Since I am a linguist and know French and Spanish well, I am now learning German, partly for fun and partly because I have a German friend with whom we have translated each others books about our childhood experiences in our respective countries when we were children growing up in World War Two. In March we have both been invited to Leipzig for the publication of our two books put together as one. We shall be talking to readers and signing books and telling them something about our respective childhoods. I am studying German every day so that I can at least be able to say some things to the German audience, even if I find it hard to understand what they say to me.

I’ve bought one particularly interesting dictionary, German into English and English into German. It is very useful because it is also, in a small way, a thesaurus, which provides everyday phrases in both countries that reveal useful differences. Because it is much smaller than my other English thesaurus I presume that all the words that are in common usage by most people are in my German one. So it helps me to learn the more frequently used words and phrases.

What is particularly interesting is that in English we have many more phrases using the word ‘do’ than in Germany, where they have other alternatives to our ‘do’. For instance, The German for ‘do’ is ‘tun’. But we English use ‘do’ more often. Here is an example. In England we say “What are you doing?” In Germany they say “Was machst du”which translated literally is “What are you making?” If you are a translator changing German into English, you cannot write that down, you must write “What are you doing?”

In every country speaking the same language people love to give different meanings to words. But, surprisingly enough, there is a uniformity in all this that makes it easy for people to understand each other. Even a different emphasis on a syllable can change meaning.

When we first moved to South America my husband and I had recently gained a degree in Hispanic Studies. This meant that we could speak correct castillian Spanish and had good knowledge of South American history and literature. The Venezuelans were delighted because we could speak to them easily. But saying is not the same as listening. It took us several months to learn what they were saying to us including our getting used to a different accent, a number of new words and a different sense of humour. Not to mention all the cultural differences.

One of the Englishmen there had just become a father for the first time. He came running into a group of friends straight from the hospital. He shouted out “Soy papa! Soy papa!” All the Venezuelans burst into laughter. The rest did not. Why? The same word, papa, has two meanings. One has the stress on the first syllable and the other on the second. Our friend was shouting out with great excitement “I’m a potato! I’m a potato! The word for father is papa but the accent is on the second syllable, the other word, papa, meaning potato had its accent on the first syllable.

Translators beware!

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