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Being bilingual isn’t enough
Understanding cultural nuances in a language is the key to a good translation


August 28, 2005

Following one of the Curriculum Development Department’s quarterly presentations titled “Translation: How does it fit into a curriculum for an intensive basic language course,” I thought of a humorous letter to send to the speaker to confirm what he had explained.

The speaker had stated that according to the American Translators Association, “Being bilingual isn’t enough to make a [professional] translator or interpreter.” You need additional training. The Speech Act theory in linguistics emphatically describes the role of understanding sociolinguistics in learning a second language.

The following letter found on the Internet makes an excellent example.

The Original Letter
When Iranian People Write in English

This letter was written by an employee of the NIOC (National Iranian Oil Company) back in the 1960's to his American boss, Mr. Hamilton. (Key expressions are in quotes.)

Dear Mr. Hamilton,

I, the undersigned, have worked in the NIOC in Masjed-Solyeman for three years. But since Mr. Ahmadi transferred here everything has changed.

I don't know "what a wet wood I have sold him" that from the very first day he has been "pulling the belt to my lift". With all kinds of "cat dancing" he has tried to become the "eye and the light" of Mr. Wilson. He made so much "mouse running" that finally Mr. Wilson "became a donkey", and appointed Mr. Ahmadi as his right hand man, and told me to work "under his hand".

Mr. Wilson promised me that next year he would make me his right hand man, but "my eye did not drink water", and I knew that all these were nothing but "hat play", and he was trying to put a "hat on my head".

I "put the seal of silence to my lips" and did not say anything. Since he was just "putting watermelon under my arms", knowing that this transfer was only "good for his aunt", I started begging him to forget that I ever came to see him and forget my visit altogether. I said "you saw camel, you did not see camel"... but he was not "getting off the devil’s donkey"...

"What headache shall I give you"? I am now forced to work in the mail house with a bunch of "blind, bald, height and half height" people. "Imagine how much my ass burns".

Now Mr. Hamilton, "I turn around your head" you are my only hope and my "back and shelter"...."I swear you to the 14 innocents" please "do some work for me"...."On the Day of Resurrection I’ll grasp your skirt"...."I have six heads of bread eaters"..."I kiss your hand and legs"

Your servant

Fatima Farideh Nejat holds a Bachelors degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology and Women's Studies; and a Masters of Arts degree in International Training and Education from the American University in Washington, DC. She served in diplomatic corps of Iran working at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC, from 1970-80. She is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of the Army, Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

For letters section
To Fatima Farideh Nejat

Fatima Farideh Nejat


Book of the day

Iranian Nationality and the Persian Language
by Shahrokh Meskoob

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