I Sat Down in a Puddle.

I’m glad Lynn Visson’s LRB Diary about being an interpreter is available even to nonsubscribers, because otherwise I’d be tempted to quote the whole thing. As it is, I’ll just pick out enough morsels to intrigue you into following the link:

The six booths correspond to the UN’s six official languages: English, French, Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. International organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also use these languages at their conferences. But the most important language in most international organisations has no name: it is the institution’s own bureaucratese, its linguistic Esperanto. We never do something, we implement. We don’t repeat, we reiterate and underscore. We are never happy, we are gratified or satisfied. You are never doing a great job: you are performing your duties in the outstanding manner in which you have always discharged them. There is no theft or embezzlement, but rather failure to ensure compliance with proper accounting and auditing procedures in the handling of financial resources. This is a language the interpreter must master very early on.

…Some colleagues play tic-tac-toe with each other out of sheer boredom. Delegates too sometimes get bored. Instead of beginning his speech with the usual ‘Thank you, Mr Chairman,’ a Russian delegate for whom I was interpreting launched in with ‘O my lost youth, my lost youth,’ and proceeded to reminisce about the mosaics in the main cathedral in Sofia, including one figure in the cupola that reminded him, as he put it, of ‘Christ in a space suit’. Several delegates turned towards the English booth with puzzled looks, undoubtedly wondering if I had gone mad. Going on automatic pilot can be dangerous. You can never be sure that a statement you’ve heard a thousand times won’t turn out differently the next time you hear it. You translate the statement you expected to hear and find yourself congratulating the chairman on his excellent work when in fact the speaker was expressing condolences to the chairman’s country on the losses suffered during a major earthquake. In a second you switch gear: ‘Therefore, I congratulate the distinguished delegate … on the extraordinary way his country has coped with the disaster which has struck the nation.’

…When the interpreter has absolutely no idea of the meaning of a sentence, the solution is, short of shutting off the microphone and bursting into tears, to stay neutral. Most people tend to repeat themselves, and there is a good chance that in the next sentence the speaker will repeat the idea in a more intelligible manner. Specialised knowledge too is a problem. A UN interpreter is lost if he hasn’t kept up with the latest developments in international affairs, but he also has to have a broad knowledge of subjects ranging from climate change and oil and gas investments to international trade law, terrorism, Aids, stem cells and human rights, and the new terminology these fields acquire daily. For the interpreter into English the responsibility is even greater, as this is the language most frequently picked up by the media. Idiom is another issue. The English until hell freezes over comes out in Russian as after it rains on Thursday, and I had egg on my face as I sat down in a puddle. Confronted with a completely incomprehensible saying, the interpreter does well to say: ‘And in my country we have a proverb appropriate to this occasion.’

And don’t miss the “misgivings” story!

Also, for those who might be interested: Harrassowitz is having a sale.


  1. I think I might kill anyone who told me “You are doing a great job”. Great? GREAT? Jesus, I hate grade inflation: call that great inflation.

  2. Fine, then, you’re performing your duties in the outstanding manner in which you have always discharged them.

  3. Does it never rain on Thursday in Russia?

  4. For when hell freezes over I think that the French equivalent could be quand les poules auront des dents ‘when hens/chickens have teeth’, but that may be old-fashioned now. I can’t think of an equivalent to I had egg on my face or I sat down in a puddle, although it is possible that a translation of the English phrase has now been adopted (as have many others).

  5. @marie-lucie. I can’t believe it. French does not have a colorful expression for embarrassing oneself in public?

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I was struck by her use of the pronoun “he” in “A UN interpreter is lost if he hasn’t kept up with the latest developments in international affairs, but he also …”

    Anyway, thanks for telling us about this.

  7. @TR: The idea behind the Russian idiom (после дождика в четверг) is not that something can never happen, but that the date is set so unprecisely that you cannot rely on it and will wait forever. An English rendering that makes this clearer is “after a bit of rain on a Thursday”.

  8. Yes, “God knows when” or “Your guess is as good as mine” are frequently better equivalents.

  9. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    An Italian idiom that seems equivalent to “when Hell freezes over” is “in the week with three Thursdays.” I believe Thursday used to be a holiday, perhaps specifically a school holiday, but I’m not really sure of the etymology.

  10. marie-lucie says

    D.O. Not having lived in France for many years (although I go back for visits), and having spent most of my life in English Canada, there are things I have forgotten, or rather that don’t spring to mind immediately. I did not mean to say there was no similarly colorful expression, just that I couldn’t think of any. Je me suis trouvé(e) bête ‘I felt stupid’ is not quite right for the occasion.

  11. marie-lucie says

    Ah, Giacomo, that reminds me of the French la semaine des quatre jeudis ‘the week with four Thursdays’. In France too, Thursday was a day without school (they have now changed it to Wednesday). But I don’t remember hearing that phrase in contexts similar to those of “when hell freezes over”.

  12. marie-lucie says

    Thursday was not a “holiday” per se but it arose from the beginning of compulsory schooling every weekday. Religious (meaning Catholic) authorities at the time complained that there would be no time for children to receive religious instruction (since there would be none in public schools), so the one day a week was a sop to the Church, which could organize religious instruction on that day, outside of public schools. In fact Thursday became a day off for most children, although in many places there were various non-school activities organized on that day, whether religious or not.

  13. In Jack Kerouac’s novels there are references to Wednesday and Saturday night dates, implying that in Quebec also the school holidays were Thursday and Sunday.

    This WordReference Forums thread proposes the following French equivalents of to have egg on your face:

    se retrouver comme une andouille

    se retrouver comme un imbécile

    avoir l’air fin

    se retrouver morveux

    se sentir morveux

    In the last two, as one contributor says, la morve ‘snot’ conceptually replaces the egg white as a source of mucus. Definitely rejected, however, is the colorful être Gros-Jean comme devant, which refers to trying and failing.

  14. Having interpreted a couple of times myself, the entire article gave me a chuckle. What is most frustrating is how unappreciated translators and interpreters are: most people do not appreciate how intellectually challenging rendering one language into another is. It’s bad enough when the original is clear, or aims to be clear, but when dealing with politicians (whose stock in trade all too often is ambiguity) it is much trickier: if a given statement is unclear, a normal translator or interpreter needs to decide what the original meaning is, but with a politician or UN delegate or the like an interpreter or translator must decide whether this lack of clarity is deliberate or not: in the former case the translation should likewise be equally unclear/ambiguous.

    For translators such modern tools as on-line dictionaries or spellcheck help, of course, but these in turn create new complications: case in point, eighth paragraph, lines 9-10: My knowledge of Russian grammar is *very* modest compared to that of our cyberhost and of many who post here, but surely “past passive particle” is the result of an over-zealous spellcheck system which received “past passive participle” as an input?

  15. Hell is going to be hot for eternity, so ‘until Hell freezes over’ means ‘forever’. It doesn’t appear on N gram viewer until 1926, but it must have been common earlier or it wouldn’t be used so colloquially in that citation.

  16. dr.s.divakaran says

    It is indeed the privilege for the simultaneous interpreter to use his own phraselogy and idion to convey the intentions overt and covert of the speaker. AS politcians who claim to be statesmen often speak in many an obfuscated style that puts up a heavy burden on the Interpreter.
    If had been in that profession and when I hear such an obfuscation. I would have exploded, inEnglish, “Balls,old chap, tell it to the Marines” following the famous Jeeves author Wodehouse when he was imprisoned in Paris by the Nazis.

  17. I suppose all those things that were only going to happen ‘when pigs fly’ should start happening now that swine flew.

  18. Google NGrams, unlike Google search, is very picky: you have to try “until hell freezes over”, “till hell freezes over”, and “till Hell freezes over” separately. The second of these pops up as early as 1865.

  19. Interesting to see this Thursday inflation. In Danish we only talk about two Thursdays to a week as being impossible. Or when cows grow wings.

  20. Dearieme: See this explanation of how American compliments work. Short version: we really do mean them, but they aren’t meant to extend beyond the subject matter of the compliment, and they are basically an attempt to find a point of solidarity between complimenter and complimentee.

    All: letters in response to Visson’s piece.

  21. “We must all learn to model ourselves on Norman Wisdom”: wonderful!

  22. Another French phrase for ‘never’ is ‘a la venece des Cocqcigrues’, which may be totally obsolete by now. When I was a kid I was intrigued by the English version, ’till the coming of the cocqcigrues’, in Kingsley’s The Water Babies.

  23. The traditional German equivalent to “when hell freezes over” is Wenn Ostern und Pfingsten auf einen Tag fallen “When Easter and Pentecost fall on the same day”. But I’ve also seen wenn / bis die Hölle zufriert, which I assume is due to English influence.

  24. The Slovak / Czech version of “when hell freezes over” is “na svätého Dindy/Dyndy”, lit. “on the feast day of st. Dindy/Dyndy”. The specificall Czech equivalent is “až naprší a uschne”, lit. “when it rains and then dries”. I know of no reliable explanation for either.

  25. @Hans: “The idea behind the Russian idiom (после дождика в четверг) is not that something can never happen, but that the date is set so unprecisely that you cannot rely on it and will wait forever.” I think it depends on the context, but I feel that “после дождика в четверг” means “it’s theoretically possible at some point in the future, but realistically, it’s not going to happen any time soon.”

    I think “когда рак на горе свистнет” (“when a crab whistles on the hill(top)”) is a better parallel to “when pigs fly.”

  26. marie-lucie says

    Treesong: Another French phrase for ‘never’ is ‘a la venece des Cocqcigrues’, which may be totally obsolete by now.

    “Venece” is a typo. The phrase is à la venue des coquecigrues ‘at the coming of the coquecigrues (note the rhyme)p, where (la) coquecigrue refers to an imaginary bird, obviously a migratory one. Since the birds do not actually exist, humans can wait a long time until they come!

    The phrase is attested in the works of Rabelais, a famous word-coiner. It is likely that the grue part is (la) grue ‘crane’, and of course coque could be (le) coq ‘the cock/rooster’. The ci part coming after coque reminds me of the cocciin (la) coccinelle ‘ladybird’ (the red insect with black dots), but that word is only attested from the 18C, in scientific works. Instead, Rabelais may have thought of (la) cigogne ‘stork’.

    I knew the word (from reading it), but not the phrase, which was probably never part of everyday speech. Other examples mentioned in the TLFI for coquecigrue(s) show the word as meaning ‘imaginary things, nonsense’, and the like. I think that anyone using the word now, for either the birds or the crazy ideas, would be showing off their erudition.

  27. marie-lucie says

    Alexei: I think “когда рак на горе свистнет” (“when a crab whistles on the hill(top)”) is a better parallel to “when pigs fly.”

    Great phrase!

    “When pigs fly” : that must be why some of Lewis Carroll’s characters (sorry to be so vague) debated “whether pigs have wings”.

  28. marie-lucie says

    bulbul: The Slovak / Czech version of “when hell freezes over” is “na svätého Dindy/Dyndy”, lit. “on the feast day of st. Dindy/Dyndy”.

    That’s just like French a la Saint-Glinglin. Glinglin seems to be an onomatopeia, perhaps the sound of a small bell (such as the ones used during the Catholic mass). Dindy/Dyndy may have a similar origin.

  29. “When a crab whistles on the hill(top)” reminds me of this wistful almost-sonnet by Edward Lear:

    Cold are the crabs that crawl on yonder hills
    Colder the cucumbers that grow beneath,
    And colder still the brazen chops that wreathe
    The tedious gloom of philosophic pills!
    For when the tardy gloom of nectar fills
    The ample bowls of demons and of men,
    There lurks the feeble mouse, the homely hen,
    And there the porcupine with all her quills.
    Yet much remains — to weave a solemn strain
    That lingering sadly — slowly dies away,
    Daily departing with departing day.
    A pea green gamut on a distant plain
    Where wily walrusses in congress meet–
    Such such is life–

  30. (Erratum: for “tardy gloom” read “tardy film”.)

  31. Alon Lischinsky says

    My native dialect of Spanish uses cuando los chanchos vuelen, a literal translation of ‘when pigs fly’. It surprises me to find no attestations before the ’70s; the earliest I’ve dug up is from Manuel Scorza’s excellent Garabombo el invisible:

    —¡Remigio no ha cambiado! Son las autoridades las que cambian.— Las autoridades cambiarán el día que vuelen los chanchos.

    For ‘having egg on one’s face’, Castilian has quedarse con dos palmos de narices, lit. ‘to be left with a two-foot nose’, if I understand the English expression correctly.

  32. TR – thanks for this: the not quite sonnet is quite something. Besides, I stumbled on Lear’s excellent and touching drawings of parrots while looking for background on the poem.

  33. “когда рак на горе свистнет” ” the hell freezes over”
    our version is “nar baruuntaigaas garah” – the sun will rise in the west

  34. Wikipedia suggests that “little rain on Thursday” is an allusion to Perun, Slavic Pagan god of thunder originally venerated on Thursday. The idea of a Pagan linkup in a Christian-sounding 7-day week surprises me, but who I am to know? So it’s never going to happen just like worshiping Perun is never going to help? In any case, I couldn’t find any ancient uses of the expression. The oldest book reference is Saltykov-Schedrin’s “Old Years in Poshekhon’ye”, rich on folk wisdom and folk sayings of his native backwoods. So he must have overheard it, and put to to book use, rather than invented it. My grandma was from roughly the same area of Russia, and her selection of folk sayings and proverbs was so stunning, I’m ready to believe that Saltykov-Schedrin got all those pearls from the country folk there, and made the rest of Russia repeat them!

  35. Trond Engen says

    The association of Perun with Thursday seems like a calque. Ultimately from Latin, of course, but presumably by way of Germanic. Perun and Thor resemble eachother so closely that they probably were seen as one and the same. But I thought the divine daynames were a mere naming convention, not a cycle of veneration.

  36. Possibly, Trond, but in all Slavic languages without exception Thursday is just “Fourth Day”, so there is no etymological link to Thunder-God in the name itself. (Embarrassingly, I didn’t hear Thor in Thursday until you set me straight, perhaps because originally in my accented grade-school English “Thursday” and “Fourth Day” sounded pretty much the same LOL)

  37. actually, there is another expression equivalent to when the hell freezes over and it’s “when a cancer whistles on a mountain”

  38. Stu Clayton says

    cancer = crab or crayfish ? когда рак на горе свистнет.

    But I do like the idea of a cancer whistling Dixie. It should be fairly easy to diagnose.

  39. Yes, ‘crab’ or ‘crayfish’ would be the correct rendering here, but the translation given is morbidly charming.

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