Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The (almost) speechless translator

It is estimated that there are over 7,000 languages in the world. As a translator, this brings me down to earth. I can communicate properly in just two of these languages (English and German), with a reasonable reading level in one more (French). I know a few isolated words in one or two other languages, but I would not be capable of holding a conversation in any of them. This means that I am speechless in 99.9996% of the world’s languages.
This is underlined whenever I travel to a country where one of these 99.9996% of languages is spoken. Over recent years I have had language adventures in Italy, Mexico, Spain, Kenya, Turkey, Iceland and Israel. In all of these countries I am dependent on people who speak an “international” language. Usually this is my native English, sometimes my adopted German.
On my latest international holiday earlier this month, I was intrigued by this road sign, and I still don’t know what the author wants me to do:
I also found it challenging to cope with this parking ticket machine in Jerusalem:
However, in my experience Israel was usually good at catering for multilingual needs, and traffic signs and road names were usually given in three languages:

In some cases, monolingual Hebrew signs were supported by pictograms, and in a few cases pictograms were used without any text.

A special curiosity was this clock in the town of Zikhron Ya’akov, which uses the traditional numerical values which are expressed by using the first few letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
For the record, the clock shows half past one (1:30 or 13:30 hrs). Otherwise, I only saw western numerals in Israel – except on the automatic car park information signs in Tel Aviv, which show the number of free spaces in Hebrew numerals.

As a final remark, I was very encouraged by a sign that I saw in the small town of Mas’ada in the very north-east of the country, a town with a large Arabic-speaking population close to the borders with Lebanon and Syria. As we drove out of the town, we saw a sign in three languages (Hebrew, Arabic and English) which said “Peace be with you”. I hope that this multilingual and multicultural attitude will prevail more and more in Israel.