International understanding

The European Union has a Babel problem. Courtesy of Oxblog, here’s an Economist story on guides to help Dutch diplomats understand the British, and British diplomats understand the French.

Hence the guide’s warning that when a Briton says “I hear what you say”, the foreign listener may understand: “He accepts my point of view.” In fact, the British speaker means: “I disagree and I do not want to discuss it any further.” Similarly the phrase “with the greatest respect” when used by an Englishman is recognisable to a compatriot as an icy put-down, correctly translated by the guide as meaning “I think you are wrong, or a fool.”

The guide also points out helpfully that when a Briton says “by the way/incidentally”, he is usually understood by foreigners as meaning “this is not very important”, whereas in fact he means, “The primary purpose of our discussion is…” On the other hand, the phrase “I’ll bear it in mind” means “I’ll do nothing about it”; while “Correct me if I’m wrong” means “I’m right, please don’t contradict me.”

. . . As the Brits see things, a Frenchman who says “je serai clair”(which literally means “I will be clear”) should be understood as meaning: “I will be rude”. Also evident is the Anglo-Saxons’ contempt for spectacular gestures à la française. The phrase “Il faut la visibilité Européenne”(“We need European visibility”) is rendered as: “The EU must indulge in some pointless, annoying and, with luck, damaging international grand-standing.” The British also suggest that the sentence “Il faut trouver une solution pragmatique” (literal translation: “We must find a pragmatic solution”) should be understood as meaning: “Warning: I am about to propose a highly complex, theoretical, legalistic and unworkable way forward.”

Most of the British usages would be clear to Americans, I think. Of course, we’ve got some of our own: “That’s given us all something to think about” means “Stop babbling. It’s time for lunch.”

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  1. LOL. BTW, everyone thinks that Japanese politeness is impenetrable, but in many ways, it’s just like the British version. The English, “Oh! Let me think about that for a bit,” and the Japanese, “I shall have to ask you to let me think about that for a while,” both mean, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. Let’s pretend it took me some time to fathom it, after which interval we can pretend I (regrettably) found some tiny thing that made it impracticable.” A lot of times the safest rule really is that you should assume whoever’s talking means the exact opposite of what he says, especially when it comes to transition phrases.

  2. Maybe I had a brain fart but I’m pretty sure I posted in this thread….

    Anyhow, my suggestion to the EU is that since they find a common currency such a good idea maybe they ought to investigate the idea of a common language.

    I suggest English. Not only does it have the advantage of being understood by me but the selection of English would drive the French crazy.

    That has to be worth something.

  3. I don’t know that this a babel problem so much as a Europeans-don’t-speak-English-as-well-as-they-like-to-think-they-do problem. Very widespread in my experience.

  4. Mad Scientist says:

    Evan, then how do you account for the difficulties beteween Brits and Yanks?

    Unfortunately, we Yanks are far too eager to take what is said at face value.