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Lost in Translation

Dr. Ken Beatty By Dr. Ken Beatty Published on November 4, 2015

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When traveling, serious personal grooming is usually something done before or after a short trip but on longer expeditions it can be one of life’s little luxuries. We once visited with friends who had moved to Bali and rented one three houses in a compound shared with a couple of other expatriates. Among them, they had a prodigious staff of gardeners, drivers, cleaners, cooks, a pool keeper, as well as one woman whose only job was to give massages. I am uncertain of what she was paid but it was likely very little.

On one business trip to Shanghai, after having my tiny Swiss Army scissors snatched away by vigilant airport security screeners, I decided to treat myself to a manicure. Entering what looked like a modern salon, I chose a package that was well within my budget without really being certain of what I was paying for. It turned out to include having the nails on my various fingers and toes expertly cut and polished but also having my feet submerged in a bucket full of small fish that I later learned were named garra rufa. I was initially dubious, worrying that they were pygmy piranha and my feet would disappear entirely. But finding out that sort of thing is not a conversation one commonly learns in Chinese phrase books and the fish tamely nibbled away at my dead skin, giving a tickly sensation while they worked.

It’s more common to have one’s hair cut while traveling and I’ve done so in ten countries, seven of which did not feature English as the primary language. In such transactions, something can be lost in translation, usually most of my hair and dignity.

Mercifully, my wife did not think to take photos when two barbers in Rome working in tandem and, for reasons understood only by them, decided to put a frou-frou little pink hair bonnet on me while they trimmed my neck. Ann laughed so hard she had tears running down her face and had to walk out to the street. Other times, my language skills have just been barely up to par, such as when I was able to shout tai ru! (Too hot!) to a barber in Chongqing, China, before she completely seared off my ear with her high-powered combination hair dryer / death ray.

In the United Arab Emirates, where barbershops are called saloons, not salons, there are different challenges. The first is that the words haircut and quick are never used together in the same sentence. As someone with fairly short hair to begin with, a haircut was always an excruciatingly long process beginning with taking one’s seat and having the barber stretch his hands around one’s throat in order to apply a flexible paper strip. I’d not had this done before and had the fleeting paranoid vision of being strangled and my body made into meat pies. I survived, and a decorative apron was whipped on before we embarked on a vague negotiation of what is to be done: a slightly outspread finger and thumb showed the length, and the barber began, scissors flailing.

The experience was made more enjoyable by a TV set blaring a Nicolas Cage movie, Con Air, dubbed into Arabic but with helpful English subtitles. The only problem was that the barber was also intent on following the plot and I had to keep checking to see if he was giving my own head as much attention as Mr. Cage’s.

When my hair was cut to the approximate length and style of the Belgian cartoon hero Tintin, the barber smiled and admired his work. Then he trimmed my beard, moustache, nose hairs, eyebrows and ear hairs as part of the job, finishing with a series of powders, lotions, and oils to my hair and face.

And I got to see the whole movie. 

Author of 130 books in the areas of language teaching and learning and computer-assisted language learning, Ken has lectured in 25 countries giving more than 400 presentations to teachers from ... Show More

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