I have been asked to write something about my relationship with English; something to do with my first steps perhaps, or my difficulties or problems at Teacher Training College (the Profesorado), or even after that.
After changing my mind several times I’ve chosen to start with some of my failures. This may sound rather off-putting but seen from a distance, some dire situations seem quite funny.
So, here goes:
To start with time and place: I was born in Rosario, in 1925 (!!) and as soon as I graduated (1945) I started working at ARCI (Asociación Rosarina de Cultura Inglesa) Two years later I was chosen to join a group that would travel to the UK to spend 2 months in London and another month visiting universities where Spanish was taught: Oxford ,Cambridge, York , Manchester, and several others. The tour was sponsored by the British Council. The idea was that as soon as we got back to Argentina a group of English university students would come to Argentina on a similar kind of tour.
But every day I spent away the feeling that I didn’t want to go back to Argentina grew stronger. There was so much that was completely new to me; I was fascinated. The fact that two of my best friends in the group had decided to stay on made me feel that this adventure would be easier than it proved to be. Both friends held British passports, which made all the difference. One of them had decided to stay for good and immediately got a job as a school teacher. She had already been teaching English in Córdoba. The other one didn’t have to work because her parents had bank accounts in England, which enabled her to enjoy a few months more just traveling around.
I started my search for a job. It was painful. Wherever I tried to apply, the first question I was asked was: Have you got a Work Permit? Which I didn’t have and the interview was over. So I decided to get a Work Permit, but that was easier said than done. This time the question was: Have you got a job?
Jobs were scarce and foreigners could only apply if there were not enough Britons with the necessary qualifications. So again the interview was over before it started.
After many attempts, or so I thought, somebody connected me with a firm that sent articles on fashion to most countries in South America and they needed somebody who could translate the articles into Spanish.
I was delighted with the idea. Success at last. Translating into one’s own language is much easier than the other way round. Furthermore, fashion doesn’t need technical knowledge of any particular science. It’s just every day language or jargon – or so I thought.
I was given an article to translate, and I was allowed to take it home. I took it back to the office feeling confident and very pleased with myself. I had not realized that my boss was a Spaniard. He was horrified with my wonderful piece of work. He had underlined in red every other word.
a) He asked me what I meant by pollera (skirt). He said that for him that word meant a woman who sells chickens (pollos)!!! It could also have the meaning of a skirt but only in the context of clothes worn at the beginning of the 19th century, huge and held by hoops or crinoline to make them look wider. Most readers might never have heard the word in that context. It was news for me too, The correct translation for skirt was falda,
b) I used the word angosta (narrow.) This was considered very old fashioned, poetical, suitable to describe a medieval street, for example. The corresponding word should have been estrecha. To make matters worse I had used this adjective with pollera. So the translation for a narrow skirt became, for the Spanish reader, a slim crinoline – what a contradiction in terms!
c) Jacket was translated as saco. This word for a Spaniard meant
bag or sack or something along those lines. He couldn’t see any connection with the rest of the text unless I meant that it was fashionable to wear clothes made of sackcloth or hessian!!!
d) Overcoat should have been sobretodo, but I chose tapado which just made him laugh.
And there were many more “mistakes”. Looking back, I don’t think they were that terrible, at least not for many Latin American Spanish speakers.
Well anyway, my would-be-boss called me to her office to say I was getting the sack. She was a sweet elderly lady and tried to do her job without hurting me too much, but she was puzzled. She said“ I don’t understand. You are talking English to me and you say your mother tongue is Spanish…
So back to square one.
I crossed the street and found myself at the door of a Lyon’s Corner House. This was one of a huge chain of restaurants famous for their reasonable prices. (Note to back packers: they no longer exist so don’t get your hopes up) Even then they were far beyond what I could afford as a general rule, but for that once, a proper meal might just help stave off my incoming depression. Sitting at a real table with a table-cloth, a waiter to wait on me and a proper, printed menu etc. made me feel as if I belonged to the aristocracy.
I read the menu and was surprised at the sight of an extremely cheap dish I had never heard of.
The menu said :
Chutney: (apples and tomatoes) The price was ridiculously low – something like 10 % of the cost of anything else that I might choose. I imagined this was a sort of salad, a mixture of apples and tomatoes.
So when the waiter asked what I would like I simply said: Chutney, please.
Waiter: And what would you like the chutney with?
Me: I just want chutney
Waiter: But you can’t have just chutney.
Me: Why not?
This went on until the waiter produced a very tiny dish with very little sauce, just enough to add seasoning to something. That was when I learnt that chutney was a kind of sauce and that there were two kinds: one made of apples and the other made of tomatoes, but obviously you couldn’t order just the relish for a dish you hadn’t ordered.
I felt very embarrassed, thanked the waiter and ordered fish and chips I can’t remember if I added chutney to my order.