Richard John: One with everything

A recent video doing the rounds showed an Australian reporter
[Karl Stefanovic Channel 9 -ed] interviewing the Dalai Lama, and falling
spectacularly flat with this ‘joke’: “The Dalai Lama goes into a pizza
shop and asks ‘can you make me one with everything’?” The revered
religious leader, whose English is quite passable, looked on bemused as
the zen joke went down like a lead balloon.

And if you’re not completely au fait with English, that analogy may pass you by, too. A balloon made of lead? Why?

Jokes, metaphors and proverbs can add colour to a presentation, but
as many conferences will have international audiences, they should be
chosen with care. For example, most cultures will have a saying similar
to ’touch wood’ for luck, as good spirits were believed to live in
trees. In Spain, the phrase is ‘Tocar madera’ (literally ‘to touch
wood’); but In Catalan-speaking areas, the expression used is ‘Tocar
ferro’ (literally, touch iron).

So far, so good. But if a Spaniard said to you ‘Ã?rbol que nace
torcido, jamás su tronco endereza’, and an interpreter explained this as
‘a tree that is born twisted never grows straight’ would you get the
message? In English we’d be more likely to say, ‘You can’t teach an old
dog new tricks’.

So, we clearly need to have sympathy for international audiences,
and think carefully about how apparently obvious messages will be
interpreted (one major bank has built a global advertising campaign
around the issue).

There are many examples of tiny mistakes creating chaos:
ex-President Jimmy Carter caused confusion and embarrassment when, on a
trip to Poland, he stated, “I have come to learn your opinions and
understand your desires for the future” only to be translated as saying,
“I desire the
Poles carnally”.

How to avoid this type of linguistic slip-up? Well, if you’re from
outside the country in which you’re speaking, go the extra mile to have
your draft speech read by a native speaker. And that goes for any AV
material or hand-outs. It is worth spending 10 minutes briefing any
interpreters on your presentation (a point hammered home at Confex
earlier this year in a workshop run by professional interpreters).

If there are large numbers of people in the audience with headphones
on, then change your delivery. Speak to foreign audiences more slowly
and clearly, although it’s true that many apparent non-English speakers
actually understand much of the language, and are more confident
listening and speaking, rather than reading.

And, back to the issue of telling jokes: some words don’t translate,
but often it may be the delivery and timing. And then there’s broader
timing: Hong Kong launched an advertising campaign to the MICE sector –
“It’ll take your breath away” – just as the SARS epidemic struck.

You can’t win them all. But ‘the tongue of the ignorant is the key to his death’, as they say in Arabic, apparently.

Any comments? Email

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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