Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

June 13, 2013

Lost in translation? Interactions with visitors spur interesting outcomes

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Not so long ago, the Soviet Union broke up into several countries and ended decades of communist rule. It’s been a brave new world for millions of people, and many of them are still not sure what to do in that world. Democracy is something the peoples of the old Soviet Union had heard about, but never practiced. They are learning about voting on ballots featuring more than one party and learning the daily details of running towns and cities. Elected officials have taken the place of communist party bosses and appointees. To learn more about Western municipal government, the new nations are turning to the United States.

The city of Bluefield was an example Tuesday when a delegation from the Russian Federation paid a visit. City Manager Jim Ferguson said the guests liked what they saw after getting a tour of the municipal building and local facilities. They were impressed with the city’s clean streets and even got to explore some of the neighborhoods. Naturally, much of the information was conveyed through an interpreter.

Every time I hear the term “interpreter,” I think of an old Italian saying, “The translator is a traitor.” I’ve played host to foreign guests on previous occasions. Each time reminds me why I almost flunked every foreign language class I’ve ever taken. I’m sure I’ve reinforced the notion in other countries that Americans are more than a bit nuts.

One instance happened years ago when I was working out of the Princeton Times offices. A Russian delegation was visiting, so they stopped by the local media outlets to learn more about American journalism. One Russian reporter worked two other jobs besides reporting just to make ends meet.

I was asked to take two of the guests to lunch. We went to a coffee house then located on Mercer Street. Both the ladies spoke a little English, and I was able to guide them through the menus and their orders. We had a pretty nice time.

But events took an odd turn when we left. One of the ladies almost stumbled on a table and said a bit of mispronounced American profanity. She immediately apologized and I assured her everything was OK.

Then her companion repeated the curse. I think she wanted to make sure she was pronouncing it correctly. Suddenly I was standing between two well-dressed ladies trying American curses.

Next, they asked if they could take my photograph. They wanted me “in front of something American.” We were short on time, so I found something fast. Somewhere in Russia, there’s a picture of me standing in front of a local dollar store.

On another occasion, running into the language barrier left me stunned, and I mean literally. I was covering the opening of a new plant in Tazewell County. It was a joint venture between a Virginia county firm and a Japanese wood company. The company president came all the way from Japan to host a christening ceremony with Virginia’s lieutenant governor.

The ceremony was pretty interesting. Both the company president and the lieutenant governor donned Japanese robes, picked up wooden mallets, and broke open a special cask of rice wine, also known as sake. Company representatives started ladling the pale wine into plastic ups and serving it to the crowd. I soon had one in my hand.

I sipped it and expected a harsh favor, but the taste was very mild. I got some quotes from local people and the lieutenant governor and all was well. Then I saw a chance to speak with the company president. Without thinking, I gulped the remaining 95 percent of my sake and threw the cup away.

We talked with the help of a translator. The Japanese gentleman was very polite, but I’m not sure his translator, who was also Japanese, had a 100 percent grasp of English.

Suddenly, I felt a change come over me. I became, well, pleasantly numb. I think the words “you’re hammered” came to mind. I also remembered a scene in a James Bond movie when 007 was served some sake. There’s a reason the Japanese serve that brew in tiny cups.

The president, with the translator’s help, asked if I had some sake yet. With a smile, I said yes and told him I had enjoyed it. I’m not sure the translator got the message across. With a look of fatherly concern, the president led me to the cask and ordered a second serving for me. I politely thanked him, we bowed, he left and I got the heck away. I dumped the fresh helping when nobody was looking.

I found a place to stand and evaluate myself, and overheard two local men compare the sake to moonshine. After 10 minutes, my blood alcohol was still in the DUI range. If you have to stop and remember how to use a telephone, you shouldn’t be driving. I called the newsroom and explained that I had to wait a while before getting behind the wheel of a car.

More visitors from other countries will visit southern West Virginia and I look forward to meeting and sharing whatever I can. I will make sure to speak carefully and to be especially careful if they bear liquid gifts.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at