Lost in Translation

(Column written for University College Maastricht magazine 'The Bell')

Lost in Translation

‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’


‘The confluence of events in the cultural gestalt necessitated that individual chickens cross roads at this historical juncture, and therefore synchronicitously brought such occurrences into being.’

‘Oh. Right…’

Studying in an international environment:  Exhilarating, mind-boggling, stimulating, thought-provoking? Yes, all of those things, it might well be.

But there are a few inevitable difficulties.

Often arising out of dis-jointed communication, on occasion one of those ‘tumble-weed’ moments occurs during class, where nobody quite knows where to look, what to say, or whether to laugh or not.
The classic example is The Case of The Attempted-Joke.

This incident happens all too often, especially in tutorial groups where, in a desperate attempt to take the edge off the awkwardness / the fact that nobody has read, or simply to try to gain some sort of approval from their classmates: a group member makes a (perhaps badly-judged)  joke.
Which is then - unfortunately for the joker- entirely lost in translation and subsequently goes down faster than a culturally-insensitive lead balloon. 

Firstly, the fact that someone is making a joke at all is problematic. For some of the students, the very idea of joking in a classroom setting is strange and incomprehensible. ‘We are here to study, not to laugh or have fun!’ (StereotypicalGerman, 2013).
Secondly, humour is not always universal. And the same goes for what we find to be appropriate humour in certain settings. Bring a typical Dutch student into a history tutorial group about WWII and they will most likely have no qualms about making tongue-in-cheek jokes about the Germans, not meant in an offensive way at all. (Well, not really).

At the beginning this does not seem to be much of a problem. On the introduction days, whilst making awkward chit chat with fellow students in the common room, little cultural miscommunications are giggled off over nervously sipped coffees, and excessively colour-coded timetables.
But as time goes on, students get a little more confident and, in some cases, a little more self-righteous. In our attempt to boldly make sense of this confusing environment filled with cultures and social codes that we may not always understand – we try to make sense of them by boxing people into categories, poking a little fun at the things we find strange, and creating complex schemas in our heads of why people are the way they are. There is a fine line between poking fun however, and becoming culturally insensitive and offensive.

This confusion is often explored, albeit mostly sub-conciously, through the medium of the joke: testing how far you can take a certain kind of humour, working out what makes people tick and adapting your own personal brand of humour perhaps, to try and tempt a chuckle out of your classmates. Afterall, laughter brings us together in an odd way, that simply talking cannot. There is a beauty in looking across the room to exchange cultural in-joke induced smirks, and of course, over time you begin to understand or to ‘get’ other people’s alien comedic habits too.

For now I will leave you with this one:

A linguistics professor gives a lecture about double negatives, explaining that in English it indicates a positive, but in some cultures and other languages, it can still mean a negative. He says, however, that nowhere does a double positive ever mean a negative.
A rival professor sitting in the back says, "Yeah, yeah...."

Heart It


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