Sunday, 25 June 2017

Free burglar lookout service (London / Lisbon)

As I approached Table 46, wondering if I should collect the half-empty bottles of beer, four customers (one woman) at Table 45 said, “They’ve just gone outside for a smoke.”  I said to them, “Do you know what you are?  You’re the Neighbourhood Watch.”  They really liked that, and laughed, turning it over aloud: “Neighbour Watch.  That’s a good way of calling it.”

Reminds me of when an ex-colleague at The Heart of the Dragon, our picture editor Douglas Tunstell*, moved from Malaga to Lisbon in the late 80s.  He wrote, saying, “We’ve moved into our new home.  We don’t need to worry about burglars, as just across the narrow road is another block of flats, with old ladies sitting at their windows all day long, looking out at the goings-on in the street.”

I’ve certainly seen similar scenes in Turkey, Spain, and Greece.  Perhaps a common feature throughout the Mediterranean countries?

(London 2017 / Lisbon late 1980s)


Women on the March

 | 58 min

This feature film in two parts is an exploration of the women’s suffrage movement. Spearheaded by women like Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women's Social and Political Union, the Suffragettes realized they would have to become radical and militant if the movement was going to be effective. There followed many demonstrations, and imprisonments until the women’s vote was finally granted, in 1918 (Britain) and 1919 (Canada, except Quebec.)

Machine translation: 02 (UK)

An ex-student on my evening Chinese programme who teaches drama (including Chinese opera) as a university course/module wanted to do a survey among Chinese drama students.  He decided to have a go himself at drafting the questionnaire in Chinese, then sent it to me for checking.

After explaining the aim of the questionnaire, he then asked the informants to 滴答 dīdā the boxes.  I told him that 滴答 dīdā is “tick” as in “tick-tock of a clock”!

(UK 2007)

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Interpreting from Chinese (China / Italy)

As a south-east Asian who’d only been exposed to mainly southern accents in Singapore and Taiwan, and then some mainland Chinese accents in London since 1977, I’ve always worried about interpreting from Chinese to English, due to the vast range of regional accents.  

A planned interview on the 1988 film shoot in China, with the protagonist of the motorcycle travelogue “coming across” a peasant who’d become rich on the Responsibility System of 1979 (initiated by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of 1978), had to be abandoned because I couldn’t understand a single word of what the peasant said.  The local guide/interpreter’s English was too poor to make it viable as we’d have to get her to render the peasant’s Chinese into standard Chinese for me, and I’d then have to render that into English, which would take up too much time and film stock for it to be worthwhile.

Last year, intermittent student Daniel wanted to take advantage of Mr Zhang’s presence at the Milan Trade Fair to hold a meeting with him over various matters.  Mr Zhang is the manager of the factory in Shenzhen where Daniel gets his product made.  Daniel wanted to thrash out some issues and it was cheaper to go to Milan than to China.  I was asked to go along and interpret.

Mr Zhang is from central China.  He’d brought along a young man in his early 30s from north-west China to interpret for him at the trade fair.

During the negotiations, there were a couple of words Mr Zhang said that I could not quite place: gēngsī and gēngzuò.  After a while, I worked out that he meant gōngsī (公司 / company) and gōngzuò (工作 / work).

I asked Mr Zhang’s interpreter, “Do you understand everything he says?”  He said, "No!"  

What chance do I have if even his own interpreter, who’s from mainland China as well, doesn’t always understand him!?!

(China, 1988 / Italy, 2016)

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

An exam essay (London)

When I was examiner for the University of London Board ‘O’ level Chinese exams in the ’80s (1984–1988), one of the essay titles was “Education”.  One of the overseas candidates (from Hong Kong) wrote something to this effect:

I had always been a poor student.  One day, I got a duck’s egg for my maths.  
I thought, “OK, so I got a duck’s egg, so what?”

My mother then got a letter from the school principal to go and see him.  
I thought, “OK, so the principal wants to see my mother, so what?”

When my mother returned from the meeting, I knew something was 
not quite right.

After that day, my friends gave me the nickname “Zebra”.

(London 1984/85)

*The Chinese don’t just get a zero, they get a big zero (a duck’s egg being bigger than a hen’s egg), so it’s even more humiliating.  My MacBook Pro dictionary gives it as “goose egg” in American English, which is even bigger!

goose egg (noun, N. Amer. informal): a zero score in a game.
ORIGIN:  late 19th cent.: with reference to the shape of the zero

duck (noun, Cricket): a batsman's score of nought: he was out for a duck.

ORIGIN:  mid 19th cent.: short for duck's egg, used for the figure 0 because of its similar outline.

Unconscious pun (London)

My beloved supervisor Paul Mulligan Thompson* told me this:

A props manager working on a play that featured cannibals in the story line had to find scalps to go on display.  

One of the publicity claims of the department store Harrods at the time was that you could find anything in their store, and if not, they’d source it for you.  So, the props manager rang them up.  

In those days, one had to go through the switchboard operator to get to the right department / person.  He explained to the switchboard operator what he wanted.

At the end of it, the operator said, without realising her unconscious pun (they have to handle so many calls each day that they don’t usually process more than the purely superficial), “OK, I’ll put you through to the Head Buyer.”

(London, 1970s)


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Students’ mistakes are much more fun (London)

A scenario in one of the textbooks used on the evening programme had the three student protagonists asking the teacher if he’d be free on Saturday.  

In my own first hand experience, an almost universal answer given by the Chinese when asked such a question is: “你有什么事 / nǐ yǒu shénme shì / "you have what matter" ( = What is it? / What do you have in mind?)  For some reason, the Chinese don’t seem to like providing information freely.

Sure enough, the teacher in the textbook scenario asked, “What do you have in mind?”

The answer was, “We’re having a birthday party on Saturday, and would like you to 参加.”

Now, 参加 means “to take part”, romanised in the Pinyin system as cānjiā.  The “c” in “参 cān” is pronounced “ ts’ ”, an aspirated explosive sound expelled between the teeth.  Beginner students who are still not that familiar with the Pinyin system almost invariably pronounce cānjiā as “kānjiā”, with the “c” being rendered as a “k” sound.  Unfortunately, “kānjiā” does exist, 看家, meaning “look after house”.

My perverse sense of humour always creases me up at this point, “No wonder the teacher was so cagey about telling them if he would be free on Saturday.  They only wanted him to housesit while they were throwing a birthday party and enjoying themselves!”

During a Listening Comprehension exercise, Italian student Sonia made a mistake which I found to be more fun than the original.  

The original was: 

stop by at the gift shop and 看看给张老师买点什么 /  “look look for Zhang teacher buy a bit of what”.  

Sonia, in repeating after me, left out the 给 gěi / “for”, so her version came out as: 

看看张老师买点什么 / “look look Zhang teacher buy a bit of what”, 

which is a nosey “Have a look at what Teacher Zhang is buying”, instead of “See what to buy for Teacher Zhang”.


Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Chinese publishing delegation from Inner Mongolia (London)

Back in the 80s, a Chinese publishing delegation from Inner Mongolia came to visit Linguaphone (who produce self-study language courses).  They were bringing their own interpreter but Linguaphone asked me to attend the meeting all the same, just to check that their interpreter was translating things accurately.

The interpreter turned out to be an Englishman, who was visibly nervous to see me.  After a brief pre-meeting chat, however, he discovered that we’d both been to SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), so he felt less intimidated.  I assured him that I’d be happy to help out if he got stuck.

The delegation told Linguaphone that they were most interested in their English course, but they did not have any foreign currency with which to pay for the course.  They wondered if they could pay with yak wool instead, as they had plenty of yaks in Inner Mongolia.

(London, 1986)