A few weeks ago, I encountered a languages student’s worst nightmare.
I had been working for a startup in Rome for about a month but had barely understood a word of the casual Roman dialect which crackled around the office every day. Linguistically, I was operating on about the same level as the office dog, a British bulldog called Cecilio, both of us perking up and wagging our tails only when we heard our own names or the word ‘pranzo’ (lunch).
I had got the job about 3 months before by assuring them that I spoke Italian, knew how to use social media, and was willing to work for free for 6 months. I pictured them high fiving on the other end of the line, thrilled with the deal that they just pulled off with this English student desperate for experience. Little did they know that the only social media account I had wouldn’t look out of place in a line-up of Russian bots, and my Italian was so rusty that it was practically on the scrap heap.
I was what they would call in Italy a ‘Cavallo di Troia’, but instead of a highly-trained army inside there was an intern clutching a CV so exaggerated that it may as well have been a Top Trump card for the Incredible Hulk. They discovered this fact sooner than even I had expected, however, when I arrived on my first day sweating in the Roman summer heat, buzzed the front of the building, and confidently said what I thought meant ‘hello, I’m the Intern’ but, as it turned out, translated as ‘hello, I’m on the inside’. There were about 5 seconds of radio silence as the person at the other end must have thought ‘who the hell is in the building, how did they get inside, and why are they buzzing the door to tell us?’
You’d be forgiven for thinking that linguistically it could only get better for me from here on out, but you’d be wrong. Over the next few days I had asked if I could pay for lunch with farmers rather than cash (contadini/contanti), accidentally started a conversation with a colleague by asking if she was married in Rome (sposarsi/spostarsi) and asked another if he wanted to copulate with me for lunch (accopiarsi/unirsi).
Amazingly the worst was still yet to come as, when asked during a work social if I liked the look of the pasta I’d ordered for dinner, attempting to use a Roman expression I’d been taught meaning roughly ‘it’s no small thing‘ instead replied ‘yeah.. well, it’s not exactly pizza and pussy’ (mica pizza e fichi/mica pizza e fica).
Yet after many more excruciating failures to get to grips with the dialect, my language ability eventually leap-frogged Cecilio’s to about the level of a toddler with slight hearing difficulties. Just as I was beginning to feel like the office translator rather than the office pervert, a colleague got out his phone, jabbered some Italian into the microphone, and the phone translated it aloud in perfect English. He turned to me, waving his phone in front of my face with glee and said what was probably ‘hey it’s the new iPhone update’ but all I heard was ‘hey, what the hell are you still doing here?’
During a few minutes of crisis, I considered, among other things, changing degree, jumping out the window, and/or emulating what the previous intern had done who, speaking no Italian, made himself indispensable to the office by snorting lines of pecorino cheese on work outings.
Short of inhaling cheese, I realised there are a few precious saving graces for languages students which translation software still can’t compete with, two of which can even be explained using the phrase: ‘let’s address the elephant in the room.’
The first is shown by words like ‘address’, which can mean several things in different contexts. You could, for example, ‘address’ the elephant in the room by talking about the elephant. You could also ‘address’ the elephant by talking to it, or even by putting an address and a stamp on the elephant and trying to get it the hell out of your room.
The second is idiom, the vast majority of which make no sense run through a translator. To my utter confusion on arriving in Italy, it’s not uncommon to hear people say phrases like ‘I did it dog’s dick’, ‘what a fig’, or hear someone cheerfully exclaim: ‘in the whale’s ass!’ which I eventually found out to mean ‘good luck.’
Of course, the reasons for learning a language rather than using a translator are not only linguistic. Try flirting with someone using a translator, for example, and you’ll sound so formal that they’ll feel like they’re being hit on by the Pope and, in Rome, 5 times out of 10 this might not work in your favour.
So, to those who say that there’s no point in learning languages in the era of translation software, you’re welcome to spend your time abroad staring down at your phone, opening and closing your mouth like a trout after a botched lobotomy but I’m afraid I will no longer join you.
And I say to Google, Apple, DeepL and the many others that – from painful personal experience – they have a hell of a lot of problems yet to solve and, until they do, ‘in the whale’s ass’ to them all!