Friday, February 12, 2010


Asking nicely

"Where are you travelling from this morning?", a customs officer asked the passenger in front of me as we exited the airport arrivals area.

Where is that this morning travelling from, is what I'd like to know. Taken literally, it implies the passenger is a familiar face to the customs officer, a regular user of the airport travelling to and from different places. The passenger's bewildered demeanour suggested otherwise.

So the phrase seems to be purely a politeness formula, appended for no other purpose than to mitigate the abruptness of the question. Similar to the call-centerese "Is there anything else I can do for you today?". A US import no doubt. How exciting if it were the substratal imprint of a native American language.

Probably not the one with no concept of time.

I found myself at a loss when asked by an immigration officer on arrival back at Heathrow "What is your destination?". I had thought I had arrived precisely at my destination as printed on the boarding pass - was it a trick question or an invitation to philosophise? After pausing doubtfully I claimed to be going home and was allowed through without having to divulge any further information.
When you are in a country with a different language it is important the right attitude on both parts of the conversation:

1. the speaker has to ask for help in a polite way showing that he/she can't speak properly;
2. the native speaker should help willingly, trying to overlook mistakes and senseless sentences.

Communication can always be achieved if there is the intention to do so.

As translators, we have discussed many interesting topics here:

Best regards,

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