Lost in Translation


Do you know that there are over six thousand five hundred different languages being spoken in the world today?


I didn't until I came across this little nugget of information as I was searching for something completely different on Google, whilst surfing the Internet on the computer. Now totally side-tracked and completely forgetting the other bit of research I was doing, I decided to explore this further. I became curious to know, which language is the most widely spoken one in the world today. I was sure it would be English.


However, I was in for a surprise.


The answer turned out to be Mandarin Chinese - with over one billion speakers!


I discovered too that out of all those languages, about two thousand of them have less than one thousand speakers. Nevertheless, six thousand five hundred is a pretty impressive amount and it is almost impossible to imagine and contemplate all the different dialects and figures of speech. I always think it is nothing short of miraculous how different cultures communicate with one another and can make themselves understood despite the many language barriers. This can only be achieved in a lot of cases through learning a second language that is more widely known throughout the world.


When I used to work in shipping, I was always impressed by the fact that no matter which ship I visited, or what part of the world they originated from, the captain and crew would put me to shame with their often impeccable grasp of the English (and Scottish!!) language. If a ship visited Scotland regularly, the captain and many of the crew would even become aware of colloquial Scottish words and idioms. It was really touching and quite enchanting to hear words like “wee” and “ye ken” being said in a really broad foreign accent!


I soon realised too that sometimes things are definitely not lost in translation, even if the two speakers are unable to understand each other!


I remember one evening we had a French ship in port and one of the questions I would normally ask the captain is:


“Do you want any fresh water shipped on board and if so, how many tonnes?”


The chief engineer who was standing with the captain immediately went into a long and very animated speech with much gesticulation and vigourous head shaking. After what seemed like about five minutes of this and just as he was becoming increasingly more adamant, he abruptly stopped.


I looked up at the captain, shrugged and said,


“I guess that's a No!”


Sometimes though, even with the best will in the world, things can quite innocently be misunderstood or lost in translation – often resulting in unintentional and hilarious results!


One such instance happened to me when we used to have a regular German ship visiting once a week. As I had learnt German when I was younger, I always looked forward to getting the opportunity of some practice. I tended to be a bit adventurous, by trying as much as possible to conduct all of the business and paperwork in German. I would get a fabulous welcome, as the crews didn't encounter many people in Britain who wanted to speak to them in their native language and I was immediately given limitless cups of coffee, as well as being invited to stay on to dinner, which on these ships meant first class food!


I used to enjoy getting this chance to practice and one week we got word that the regular ship was to be temporarily replaced by another one called the “Johanna,” which would be arriving the following Tuesday evening.


“That's great!” I thought, because next Tuesday evening would be my night on call. This was also the first time that the “Johanna” had called at Grangemouth, so I would be meeting a new captain and crew. My colleague had made all the arrangements for the ship to berth during the day, so when I went on duty that night, everything was in place and ready for me to board.


I greeted the captain and chief officer in German and we worked our way through all the paperwork. I was given my customary cup of coffee and all my questions were politely answered in German, although both the captain and his officer looked a little puzzled from time to time.


“Oops!” I thought, “I must be getting a bit rusty!”


Towards the end of our meeting, both men went out the room and while I was waiting on them returning, I lifted my head from the paperwork and looked at one or two pictures that were adorning the walls. One showed a very beautiful and regal looking woman who was very elegantly dressed, but smiling happily for the photographer. There was something familiar about this woman that rang a bell, but at this moment, I just couldn't place who she was.


Before I could contemplate this further, the captain returned alone this time and we concluded our business. I was handed a copy of the crew list which I filed away in my briefcase. I wished the captain a very good evening in German which he reciprocated. Then I left. As I was walking back to the car, I kept thinking about the photograph of the very regal looking lady and suddenly something clicked.


This lady who looked so elegant and had such a nice smile, was Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands !


I stopped a moment, thought about the long cheery talk I had in German on this ship, then the realisation set in.


I had been having a conversation in German with a captain and crew who were actually Dutch!


A quick look at the crew list confirmed this. The German owners must have chartered a Dutch ship to cover the voyage from Germany because they didn't have any of their own ships available! What made this utterly amazing was that the captain had politely continued with this conversation throughout in impeccable German.


He must still wonder to this day, why on earth a Scotsman was having a very surreal conversation with him in broken German in Grangemouth of all places! But to his credit, he carried gamely on and patiently took part in what was for me a German conversation class!


My colleague attended the sailing of the vessel the next day and I have always wondered if the captain greeted him in German, thinking that he had arrived in a surreal corner of Scotland where rather broken German was the main language! Or perhaps he was just glad to be sailing back to Germany where he would encounter some real Germans!


This year, Pentecost Sunday will be celebrated on May 27. Each time this event comes round, I'm reminded of those days when I attempted to communicate in languages which were not my native tongue. I still remember how thrilling it was to be understood (most of the time!!) by people who came from a different country and culture. One of my favourite pieces of scripture is from Acts. It describes how the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and made the wonderful discovery that they could talk to the large multi racial crowd in their own languages:


“When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak.


There were Jews living in Jerusalem , religious people who had come from every country in the world. When they heard this noise, a large crowd gathered. They were all excited, because all of them heard the believers talking in their own languages. In amazement and wonder they exclaimed, ‘These people who are talking like this are Galileans! How is it, then, that all of us hear them speaking in our own native languages?”

(Acts Chapter 2 : verses 1 -8.) Good News Version


I found it exciting trying to communicate in just one language, but how thrilling must it have been for the disciples to find that not only could they suddenly be understood, but understood perfectly by anyone they attempted to talk to, no matter whom this person was or their nationality. At first they must have been a little scared. The power surging through them would have been awesome, almost incomprehensible.


Then as well as this pure energy and power, they would feel the gentle stillness of God's quiet voice talking through them, encouraging them and nurturing anyone they came in contact with. Suddenly they would know deep down in their hearts that things were going to be alright. Whereas for me, in my limited attempts to talk in a foreign language, it involved a lot of thought and concentration to make myself understood. For the disciples, it would have been effortless. The words would have flowed from the tongue probably quicker than the speaker could keep up with them.


What I really love about the events that took place during Pentecost was that because the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, the words of wisdom that they imparted with the people in the crowd in so many different languages would be crystal clear. These words would contain such clarity and purity that the message contained within them would be understood deep within the very core of the recipient's psyche. They would be totally unambiguous.


Unlike human inspired words, not a single sentence would ever be lost in translation.



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Blackbraes and Shieldhill Parish Church of Scotland

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