Meaning of words lead to cock-ups or get lost in translation

We all know that our country is suffering from schizophrenia, but I did not realise how seriously the disease had taken hold until I heard this funny story about our language difficulties.

We all know that our country is suffering from schizophrenia, but I did not realise how seriously the disease had taken hold until I heard this funny story about our language difficulties.

We are all fluent in our mother tongues. The problem starts when we have to use our fellow countrymen's languages to communicate with them.

It took me a long time to understand the difference between "quite" and "quiet" when I was a youngster.

It was only when I was old enough to understand verbal insults and sarcasm delivered with a thin stiletto that I appreciated the difference between the two.

I say this because a fan tackled me in the taxi two weeks ago telling me about his dilemma. He says he studied English for a long time, but when he felt comfortable enough to use the language, things changed for him.

Newspapers using what was called vernacular in the old days started up. He says he would read the paper with its Zulu headline without understanding what it meant.

Mind you, he is a Zulu boy from Mahlabatini. He can recite his family history back to King Shaka's day.

His white colleagues would ask him what a particular word meant and he would go blank.

You see, when he looks at them he begins to think in their language. If they switch into his language, he gets confused.

The advent of the many foreigners who are now resident in South Africa has compounded the problem. He has to learn their foreign sounding names and their foreign accents.

He said the last straw was when he saw a billboard that read: "Take back Manood."

Because he works with many foreign Indians, he thought this was a poster for a wanted man.

When he saw it he wondered what the poor Indian had done to be embarrassed like this.

Did he abduct his children and fly off to India with them against their mother's wishes? Was he a kidnapped businessman? Or did he run off with the savings from his business, leaving his partner bankrupt?

He mentioned these conjectures to a friend at work. The friend asked him where he had seen this billboard and he replied that he had seen it in Rosebank while in a taxi.

The next day, his friend looked at him and burst out laughing. He was hysterical. Eventually he showed him the same advert in a Sunday magazine.

The advert read: "Take back your manhood". It was an advert for a sexual problems clinic.

The simple word escaped him because he had learnt to expect difficulties when dealing with foreign languages.

He wanted the earth to open up and swallow him. His friend joked that he obviously did not need the clinic's services otherwise he would have grasped the message immediately.

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