Perils of phrasebooks

Phrasebooks are an indispensible tool for those who would seek to know some rudimentary aspects of a foreign language. However, there were some howlers in some of them round the turn of the century and even later…. hmmmm, ooops, I mean the one before it or so.  It is yet to be known whether these were inadvertent or someone was displaying a sense of humour which I can relate too….. After reading the story of Ahn’s (I will share the story soon) and examining my own sentiments, I plump for the former.

I remember reading in a book by an old India hand sometime in the 1980s, a phrase he found that decade contained gems like “Your matchlock is dirty” and others of that ilk. I think it was in “India File” by Trevor Fishlock. I remember reading John Masters, who in his inimitable first volume of his three-set autobiography “Bugles and a Tiger” cited a phrase he found a Norwegian phrase book: “Hark, our postillion has been struck by lightning” and noting he found an Indian equivalent when he came to the country: “Hark, our ostler is being devoured by a tiger.” I myself remember that phrase book I had bought before I was being sent to Nepal to report on the disturbances – but fortunately forgot to take along before I went – but let me deal with it somewhere else separately……. Also that book on learning Pushto but that too.

Coming back to my thrust, here is a section from from one of the most talented humour writer ever in English on this topic. Have a look for yourself…..

George said: “Say no more; I understand. Besides, what I came to talk to you about was another matter. Look at that.”

He handed me a small book bound in red cloth. It was a guide to English conversation for the use of German travellers. It commenced “On a Steam-boat,” and terminated “At the Doctor’s”; its longest chapter being devoted to conversation in a railway carriage, among, apparently, a compartment load of quarrelsome and ill-mannered lunatics: “Can you not get further away from me, sir?”—”It is impossible, madam; my neighbour, here, is very stout”—”Shall we not endeavour to arrange our legs?”—”Please have the goodness to keep your elbows down”—”Pray do not inconvenience yourself, madam, if my shoulder is of any accommodation to you,” whether intended to be said sarcastically or not, there was nothing to indicate—”I really must request you to move a little, madam, I can hardly breathe,” the author’s idea being, presumably, that by this time the whole party was mixed up together on the floor. The chapter concluded with the phrase, “Here we are at our destination, God be thanked! (Gott sei dank!)” a pious exclamation, which under the circumstances must have taken the form of a chorus.

At the end of the book was an appendix, giving the German traveller hints concerning the preservation of his health and comfort during his sojourn in English towns, chief among such hints being advice to him to always lock his bedroom door at night, and to always carefully count his small change.

“It is not a brilliant publication,” I remarked, handing the book back to George; “it is not a book that personally I would recommend to any German about to visit England; I think it would get him disliked. But I have read books published in London for the use of English travellers abroad every whit as foolish. Some educated idiot, misunderstanding seven languages, would appear to go about writing these books for the misinformation and false guidance of modern Europe.”

“You cannot deny,” said George, “that these books are in large request. They are bought by the thousand, I know. In every town in Europe there must be people going about talking this sort of thing.”

“Maybe,” I replied; “but fortunately nobody understands them. I have noticed, myself, men standing on railway platforms and at street corners reading aloud from such books. Nobody knows what language they are speaking; nobody has the slightest knowledge of what they are saying. This is, perhaps, as well; were they understood they would probably be assaulted.”

George said: “Maybe you are right; my idea is to see what would happen if they were understood. My proposal is to get to London early on Wednesday morning, and spend an hour or two going about and shopping with the aid of this book. There are one or two little things I want—a hat and a pair of bedroom slippers, among other articles. Our boat does not leave Tilbury till twelve, and that just gives us time. I want to try this sort of talk where I can properly judge of its effect. I want to see how the foreigner feels when he is talked to in this way.”

It struck me as a sporting idea. In my enthusiasm I offered to accompany him, and wait outside the shop. I said I thought that Harris would like to be in it, too—or rather outside.

George said that was not quite his scheme. His proposal was that Harris and I should accompany him into the shop. With Harris, who looks formidable, to support him, and myself at the door to call the police if necessary, he said he was willing to adventure the thing.

We walked round to Harris’s, and put the proposal before him. He examined the book, especially the chapters dealing with the purchase of shoes and hats. He said: “If George talks to any bootmaker or any hatter the things that are put down here, it is not support he will want; it is carrying to the hospital that he will need.”

That made George angry.

“You talk,” said George, “as though I were a foolhardy boy without any sense. I shall select from the more polite and less irritating speeches; the grosser insults I shall avoid.”

This being clearly understood, Harris gave in his adhesion; and our start was fixed for early Wednesday morning.

To know what befell them there, read on…….

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