Language, confusion & translation in Seoul, Korea - 26

Confusion, langauge and translation

Why is “toilet” written on all of the buildings in London? That was the question put to me by one of my students and I was unable to answer the question, because I have lived in London and I know that toilet is not written on most buildings. After a whilst I came to realise that what it does say on many buildings in London, is “To Let” – meaning to rent on Translations and languagesa long-term basis. We were both left bemused by the initial confusion.

English words and their translation into Korean can also be a cause of amusement, embarrassment and interesting situations. In another situation, one of my friends ‘Niall’, an Irish guy, was teaching two children and he had a problem to explain the word ‘Ambidextrous’ (which means ‘a person who can use both hands’). Niall had bought an electronic dictionary in Seoul, so he typed in the word and as he showed the two children the screen of the dictionary. The translation came up with the translation as ‘bi-sexual’. Bi-sexual does mean two ways but not two ways with your hands. He quickly took the electronic dictionary away from the students. Koreans going to Australia may also be shocked when they are riding in a taxi-cab and hear the driver saying “Good die” – words two of my students said they heard many times and were scared for many days. They realised eventually that the drivers were saying “Good Day” - the Australian way of greeting people.

Every country has its own peculiarities and what one traveller finds strange in a country, is often a way of life in the country being visited. On a recent visit to Italy for example (July 2004), I was surprised by the way in which everyone, including men, kiss each other on both cheeks on the side of the mouth, in greeting. I have got used to this now, although I recently went to kiss the wrong side first and ended up almost head butting someone. Another odd thing I found in Italy was the way they often drink coffee. If you ask for a coffee in Italy, you will always receive what in Korea and most countries is an espresso.

There are many café/bar places in Italy, where you order your coffee from the bar, stand at the bar and drink it within in a minute or so and then leave. In stark contrast, Koreans spend on average, a far greater amount of time sat in coffee shops. It is quite common for Koreans to spend many hours chatting and playing with their latest cell-phone, sat in a coffee shop. These days in Korea, there is an every increasing number of Westerners who do private teaching in the coffee shops. Go to any Starbucks coffee shop in Seoul and someone will be teaching, someone will be playing with their new Samsung phone and someone also will probably be on a blind date. More about Korean dating later.

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