Lost in Translation

It’s odd living in a place where extremely few people speak English. I’ve spent a lot of time in Eastern European countries, but there, many people speak English, and many are fluent. English is a fairly new addition to life in Georgia, so English speakers are few and far between, and of those who do speak English, they’re usually far, far from fluent. Not that it’s a fault or anything, no, it’s just new for me, hard to adjust, and a bit frustrating at times. Amusing as well, in that sense of remembering conversations that don’t make much sense so I can write them down later. I have yet to meet someone in Kutaisi who speaks English fluently.

The co-teachers I work with have decent English. I would say they are at the Intermediate level or maybe Upper-Intermediate, if any of my audience is familiar with these ESL levels of English. In conversations with my co-teachers I need to remember to use simple words and speak slowly. The Expert and I (and the Expert’s Pakistani predecessor) are the only foreigners our co-teachers have ever met. They have never spoken with a native English speaker, so even though they studied the language in university, it is difficult for them to converse with someone who is fluent. And there is so much more to communication than vocabulary and the grammatical structuring of sentences! Things like intonation, rhythm and humor are essential to communication, and they aren’t things you pick up in a beginner’s English textbook. How can one teach sarcasm? The Expert and I are constantly making fun of each other – my brash American arrogance and general ignorance of all things worldly and cultural, and I make fun of him for being British, basically. These are elements of the language that aren’t part of the curriculum, but are necessary to know if one is to be a fluent speaker, because they are so essential in day to day conversation. If someone doesn’t get your sense of humor, it’s the same as if you’re speaking too fast for them. Or using words they don’t understand. So the only conversations the foreign teachers here really have, are when we get together for our weekly cathartic complaining sessions.

Trying to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t understand you is always difficult. But since it’s almost every conversation we have, both parties sort of agree that even though neither of you really understands the other, you’ll sort of meet halfway. There’s a lot of guesswork involved. And this makes for spectacular misunderstandings, a few of which I have taken note of in the past week or so.

The Expert and I only have about six lessons per week. As there is little to do, we’ve been interested in trying to get extra hours. We wanted to offer voluntary lessons at the school for students who wished to have more English lessons, and also offer lessons at the dormitory, to staff members who wanted to have lessons. We needed to speak with the principal or head teacher in order to figure something out. But they don’t speak English, so we had to rely on one of our co-teachers to get the message across. After a few weeks of failed communications (which were delayed for a while because the co-teacher was upset with the principal, because the principal keeps changing the timetable of school lessons every week,) there was a glimmer of hope that we had been understood. The school staff said that we just needed to pick a time and we would have a classroom where kids could show up if they wanted lessons.

You must choose a time for when the lessons will be.

Well, we don’t know the students’ schedules. What time would it work best for the school to have extra lessons?

Pick the time that works best for you to have the lessons, and you will teach then.

(We compared schedules, and decided on a time.)

You cannot teach during this time, the students have their lessons then!

(Well, that would have been handy to know when you told us to pick a time to teach the students! That’s why we asked what time would work best, because we wanted to know what times were available to have lessons! We have since stopped trying to get extra lessons at the school, but kept working on getting lessons with the dorm staff. Eventually we were told that we would have lessons. Be at the entrance of the dormitory tomorrow at 9am. Who will the students be? Well… who knows.)

So we finally got our new group of students. Day one was basically going through the questions: religion, family, marriage, and how much we like the country, the wine, the food, etc.

Have you been to Gelati and Motsameta?

Yes, I have been there.

And have you been to Sataplia?

Yes, I have seen Sataplia. But the Expert has not been to any of these. (Gelati, Motsameta, and Sataplia are the three tourist attractions near Kutaisi. There’s not much in the city itself, but these three attractions, all around 15km outside of the city, are what bring people here. So when people ask how much we like Kutaisi, the response must always include how much we like Gelati and Motsameta.)

Oh, because we would like to take you somewhere to show you something tomorrow.

Yes, we can go to Sataplia tomorrow, what time?

Tomorrow we go at three o’clock.

The Expert: Hmm, tomorrow I am busy in the afternoon. My family is coming to visit. Can we go in the morning?

Tomorrow only afternoon will work. Sataplia is closed in the morning because it is holiday.

Well, we could go to Gelati and Motsameta, they are never closed.

No, we go to Sataplia because it is more interesting.

The Expert: Yes, but my family is coming in the afternoon, around one o’clock, so I am busy then.

Okay, we will go earlier. We leave here at noon.

So we finally decided that we would go at noon, unable to communicate the idea that the Expert had obligations in the afternoon and needed to go earlier. Or that Gelati and Motsameta would have worked perfectly well, as the Expert has yet to go see them, and there are no opening hours to worry about. But at noon the next day, they told us that the trip was canceled, because it was independence day. So the opening hours weren’t restricted, the place was just shut down for the day. So we didn’t do anything.

There was another example, the same day as our negotiations for what time to go to Sataplia. I went to my normal class, and after the class with the electricians, Bibi said she needed to go speak with the head teacher to give them the long term lesson plan for the electricians.

Okay, but the next lesson begins soon.

Steven. There is a ten minute break.

Well yes, but that began seven minutes ago. It is almost class time. (She checked her watch.)

Yes. I go now.

So, I was unable to communicate the idea that, well, class starts in about a minute or two, so maybe in the next ten minute break you should bring the lesson plans to the head teacher. Maybe this time I won’t have to sit in the room awkwardly waiting for the first five or ten minutes!

The discrepancy of what’s said and what’s understood, between what’s sent and what’s received. Like the game “telephone” where the end message is drastically different than the message that started the game. Hilarious on one hand, but it sure makes accomplishing tasks difficult!

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