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Lost in translation

A note of caution on dipping your toe in the waters of Australian-English when Down Under

In Canada, it’s possible to find a man lounging on a chesterfield in his rented bachelor wearing only his gotchies while fortifying his Molson muscle with a jambuster washed down with slugs from a stubby. This fine sentence is full of Canadian-English. As readers may be aware I’m fond of Canada. No surprise really when you consider I’m married to a Canadian and my son, his fiancée and my granddaughter live there. I spent three months in Newfoundland as a medical student and have spent a number of lovely holidays in Western Canada.

Readers will also be aware of my love of words, accents and regional dialects of English. The most creative of these in my view is Australian-English. So you can imagine my (over) excitement, when, having completed a Masters in Medical Humanities by distance learning at the University of Sydney, I decided to head Down Under for the graduation. And the university kindly invited me to give a lecture on narrative medicine while I was there. As the Aussies would say: Fair dinkum.

I became quite obsessed with introducing my lecture with some Australianisms – the formal term for the lexicon of Australian-English. I reasoned that just as I have heard lecturers from abroad say a cúpla focail at the beginning of their presentations when visiting Ireland, wouldn’t it be just lovely to use a few well-chosen Australianisms to show my appreciation of the invitation.

It was possibly one of the most delightful pieces of research I have ever undertaken. Beyond ‘Sheela’ and ‘Bruce’ was an entire cornucopia of creative reworking of the English language. It soon became clear that I wouldn’t be short of a bon mot or two with which to treat the local audience. So I made up a first slide that started with: “Good Arvo everyone!”

“I come from a woop-woop in the west of Ireland. Just got here yesterday and I’m a bit carked from jet lag. So please excuse me if I come across as being a few roos short in the top paddock….” (Translation: Good afternoon. I come from a small village in the west of Ireland. I’m feeling dead from jet lag so please excuse me if I come across as a little crazy.)
Now I was just getting into my stride at this point and I would happily have put together a few more slides of carefully chosen Australianisms. I was itching to fit in “dry as a dead dingo’s donga” as I asked for a glass of water, but there was a whole lecture to work through, so common sense prevailed and I left it at that.

Fast forward to the long flight to Sydney. At some point I fished out my iPad and began to go over my presentation. It was then that the doubts set in. The opening slide would be ok, wouldn’t it? I mean they would know I was reaching out to them with my Australianese, wouldn’t they?

A brief snooze later and I woke up even more full of doubt. We were flying on an Emirates aircraft, which as many of you know are staffed by about 20 flight attendants from all over the world. They wear a national flag on their name badges so you can tell where they are from. I reckoned there had to be an Australian attendant on our flight. Sure enough, I found a pleasant young woman in the galley with the appropriate moniker. I explained my situation to her and she asked me to say exactly what I had placed on the first slide. T

o her credit, she didn’t laugh, she checked it was the University of Sydney I was planning to speak at and then she firmly advised that I scrub the entire slide. She announced that I might just get away with it if I was presenting at a small town hall in deepest rural Australia, but that the sophisticated citizens working in the oldest university in Australia would not be amused. An opening like that could even jeopardise the award of the masters degree, she reckoned, to drive her point home.

I was reminded of this close shave when I read the recent obituary of the editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. The Oxford University Press hired Katherine Barber as the founding editor of its Canadian dictionary in 1991, in order to create an authoritative reference work to decode contemporary Canadian words and meanings. While not as colourful as its Commonwealth counterpart, the dictionary accumulated a good slice of Canadianese.

And for those of you still working out the opening paragraph in this column, it describes a man on a sofa in a studio apartment wearing only underwear while expanding his beer belly with a jelly doughnut and a squat brown beer bottle. The Australian equivalent is unprintable.

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