Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Lost in translation

Lost in translation

I looked around me at the crowd stretching out as far as I could see in every direction. Hundreds, possibly even thousands of passengers, pushing and shoving, gesticulating in complaint or staring sullenly into the distance. A sea of humanity, resigned, cynical, expecting only to be delayed or thwarted, not a shred of hope nor optimism discernible on any face. Now and again above the din a shout would echo around the departure hall – someone who’d simply had enough, sharing their frustration or despair.

Beijing airport is huge by any standards, and mechanical, impersonal, relentless. Resist at your peril – the machine won’t stop for you. After your holiday you arrive to join the queues at check in, and then shuffle with the masses to security where you are duly processed like a part on a factory conveyor belt, your cabin bag inspected and health certificate collected. Once through passport control you head onwards into the dazzling departure hall where glitzy shops line the central passage and you hurry towards the gates – past the fast food chains, the glamorous designer shops, the cafes. No time here to ‘meet carefully’ as you are urged by a couple of notices. By now you have walked about two kilometres and the boards are flashing to remind you that your flight is on final call for boarding. The departure process usually takes around three hours. Clearly the airport is an ‘operating place of importance’ like a few others I had seen signposted on my travels.

Once on board I sat back in my seat, having taken out my book, water bottle, cleansing wipes, moisturiser and toothbrush kit, placed them into the seat pocket - which now rested on my knees – and waited for the engines’ whines, all ready for take off.

An hour later we were still on the tarmac. A cabin attendant with a face like a porcelain doll strolled nonchalantly past.

‘Excuse me, what is the delay? Can you tell me when we are going to depart?’

‘We have formalities,’ she replied. I was so stunned I couldn’t think of a response. Another hour passed before I enquired again.

‘Is there a problem? We are very delayed now.’

‘No ploblem. We have formalities.’ Perhaps the pilot was having a pre-take off nap, having heeded a sign on the airport approach road ‘Do not drive tiredly.’ I suppose if we had any kind of accident we would have needed the services of an ‘Alarming Place’ as first aid stations are sometimes named.

We eventually took to the air after nearly three hours with only dry biscuits, water and a Tour of China film to sustain us before an eleven hour flight. Still, at least there was a Hollywood movie to look forward to. When our meal arrived I was delighted to find it was ‘chicken with strange taste’ - my favourite, and far better than the ‘reproductive organs of the crab’ I’d tried elsewhere - and there was even a tiny plastic cup containing a mouthful of red wine to go with it. The authorities like to keep everyone healthy, as you are reminded frequently by signs announcing ‘No Liquorheads’ at the entrance to various sights.

I leaned back once more and recalled some of my favourite moments, such as figuring out that a notice warning ‘no refluence’ at the Hong Kong border had nothing to do with sewage as I at first thought but meant that I couldn’t change my mind and turn back once I had set foot in the Peoples’ Republic. In any case there was no time to change my mind as another sign warned ‘No Lingering’. On pain of what? I wondered.

I think my favourite linguistic triumph was figuring out that the notice on a rubbish bin on the Great Wall - ‘If you would join us more rubbish will be homeless’ - was not in fact an insult but an attempt to keep the area clean.

China is full of translation delights like these. In Yangshuo I was impressed to see that the farmer who had so kindly shown me his modern toilet (with a roof above the trench) had been awarded the ‘Thick Farmer of the Year’ prize for his productivity.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now approaching London airport….’

It had been a good movie thus far, but there were at least thirty minutes remaining when it was abruptly switched off for our approach, so I never saw the end. Perhaps they’ll show it to the passengers waiting on the tarmac for the return flight to take off.

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