31 October, 2012
Tales from the Multiculture: exceptional interpretation duties
During the course of my duties I am sometimes called upon to provide ad hoc translation services. The English-language skills of the East Europeans who now form the backbone of the capital's bar staff, particularly in the centre, are often excellent. If deceptively so. In my experience, their professional repertoire, ie the language they need to do their job, is well-honed. Outside that immediate professional vocabulary they frequently struggle. As they do when faced with unfamiliar dialects of English.
But it was the particular permutation of participants that made yesterday's experience so surreal. The person behind the bar was not, for once, a Pole, but an Albanian. She copes well with the Gorblimey Lord Lovaduck Sarf London accent and the more recently imported Nigerian English accent. But her customer defeated her comprehension skills. A Black lady with a broad Yorkshire accent.
Older readers may remember the comic Charlie Williams. Charlie's shtick was gently mocking observational comedy, often about race relations, delivered in the Eebahgum Bugger Me 'Ell As Like Tha Knaws accent he grew up with in South Yorkshire. The comedy lay in the incongruity of a Black man in the 1970s speaking in an accent like that and about homely and familiar subjects — being so jarringly on both sides of that particular fence at once.
This customer had an accent very much like Charlie's and was probably of a similar West Indian or mixed-race heritage. And yet, even 40 years after Charlie's comedy heyday, even in the depths of multiracial London, the incongruity still stood out and it was difficult to suppress an impolite chuckle.
It certainly flummoxed the Albanian manageress, I tell thee.