Sunday, March 6, 2011

Take Care How You Say Things in Tajikistan

Language was always a battle during my time in Russia and I attribute my proficiency at charades to my incompetence at speaking Russian. By the time I left, I was quite adept at flapping my arms to convey meaning when my linguistic abilities had failed me.

I have already written about wrong footing a travel agent who thought she knew it all by demanding a ticket across the Black Sea by spoon, but there were times when speaking English unwittingly caused greater hilarity, such as my first trip to Tajikistan.

Flying to Tajikistan was a real buzz. I had no real idea where it was, except that it was an outpost and not many people went there. It sounded hot, dry and vaguely exotic and the recent (ongoing?) civil war appealed to my sense of adventure. This was 1993 and post-Soviet Tajikistan was anything but peaceful.

The aid organisation I was working for, Care International, was active in all the former Soviet republics. It was a fascinating time on so many levels, but on a human level, seeing how people who were forced to readjust to the harsh new reality of a society in chaos with a social safety net taken away overnight, was harrowing at times.

The benefits to my employers were obvious: highly skilled, fluent English speakers available in abundance. It was not a question of taking advantage, in many cases the agency jobs were the only show in town paying hard cash, but it led to surreal situations where my driver was a nuclear physicist by profession, my translator a surgeon.

They were patient with my attempts at speaking Russian, and I always knew that I could revert to English if things became difficult, which was a total contrast to my linguistic experience on my trip to the office in Tajikistan, where I was seconded for a week on a fact-finding mission for HQ.

The staff were excellent, extremely hospitable and keen to show me as much as they could of their beautiful country. The level of English, however, was far inferior from the levels I had been accustomed to in Russia, understandably so, given the lack of opportunity to converse with native English speakers.

It was not a problem and we got through the week with a combination of my bad Russian, their (better) English and some of my legendary arm flapping, but it struck me as odd that they always talked about the agency not as Care, but Ka-ray. It was a strange pronunciation, which I put down to their distance from the mother ship, and I did not feel I should jump in and question or correct them. I wish I had done.

On the second day, we entered some official's office for a meeting. It was the usual story - big desk, three telephones of different colours and levels of importance. There were three officials and I strode confidently in, addressing them in my best Russian:

"Hello, I am Paul from Care International. Pleased to meet you," before thrusting my hand forward to the nearest official. They all stared at me, before stifling laughter as best they could. I looked to my Tajik colleague, who had reddened and was averting his eyes.

Confusion reigned and I got the meeting back on track and, as we walked the short distance back to the office in searing heat, I asked my colleague what had been so funny. "It, I... We not say Care here. We say Ka-ray. Reason we say Ka-ray, Care in Tajikistan mean man private thing." Arm flapping aiding the explanation, all became clear, and I learned that day that any embarrassment at trying to cross the Black Sea by spoon in Russian is easily surpassed when striding into a room in Dushanbe and confidently exclaiming:

"Hello, I am Paul from Penis International. Pleased to meet you."


One of the many things I appreciate about writing at Suite 101 is the wealth of diversity and experience of the thousands of writers on the site. There is an expert on every subject, a writer seemingly in every country on the planet.

Thinking that my linguistic faux pax may not be an isolated case, I posted on the forum to see if there were any other amusing foreign language double entrendres. There were some entertaining replies, my favourites being (in their own words):

Martin P. Wilson, FW for Reference Books: When GEC Plessey Telecoms started calling themselves GPT they could not use it in France as Je petai (think that is how it is spelt) means I fart (break wind) and sounds much the same. GPT chairman faced a lot of sniggering first time he went to France after the name change and used the new name, have that from a friend who was a Director at the time.

Carol Finch, FW for Retirement Planning: Denmark produces a range of sweets called Spunk. That caused huge hilarity with the male students I studied with. They may have been old enough to vote but found nothing funnier than asking for a bag of spunk in a shop....

Tony Durrell, FW for Latin American History: I won a bag of rice and a jar of Peruvian Fanny jam at my local shop's Christmas raffle. I do happen to have a fresh jar of Fanny jam in my fridge, as well as a squeezy bottle of Fanny mustard (I ate my Fanny tuna last night).

James Hutchinson, FW for Business Profiles:There was an old movie in which a young bride expresses her love for a lace cap which she calls her 'little Dutch cap.' Unfortunately, 'dutch cap' is British slang for a diaphragm, so lines like "I'm so glad to be here in my wedding dress and my little Dutch cap" brought on unrelieved snickering from rude audiences throughout England's green and pleasant land.

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