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phrasebook for the English-speakers holidaying in the UK

Going on holiday? Learn tourism-speak  Aug 10, 2008

They slip easily into the pocket, they're indispensable on holiday, and they're especially useful if you find yourself in intimate situations where a lack of protection can spell trouble. Yes, who would want to be without a phrasebook abroad?

But it isn't just abroad that a phrasebook can come in handy. For those of us holidaying in the UK this year (that's everyone apart from hedge fund managers and Cristiano Ronaldo) a phrasebook can also prove useful. Because there are all too many phrases and sayings one encounters when out of one's normal habitat that require translation from tourism-speak into Plain English.

For example - the well-known phrase “continental breakfast complimentary” means: “We serve wet toast with minute plastic trays of melting golden vegetable fat, trays so small you can barely get a knife in, and alongside them there are tiny pots of chemically treated orange jelly, probably waste from a now discontinued Iraqi WMD programme, which we call marmalade. Oh, and some tepid water that has been brushed with the outside of a week-old teabag.”

You may also imagine you have come across another, apparently enticing, welcome, when you see the words “family-friendly facilities here”. What that really means is: “We have a camp bed the manager salvaged from his National Service in Aden and which hasn't been cleaned since we evacuated east of Suez. Should you want your brats to sleep anywhere other than your own bed or the floor then we can shove it in your room for a modest 50-guinea surcharge. But since we don't have an in-house babysitting or alarm service, if you want to dine in our restaurant you'll also need to book a babysitter from a local agency (my nephew is just out of HMP Slade and up for casual work) for another 50 quid, exclusive of tips and his beer money.”

And what, you may wonder, does “wherever possible we source all our produce locally”? Normally, this translates as: “There's a cash-and-carry just three miles away, off the M6, who do us a fantastic deal on dripping, oven chips and frozen Zimbabwean lamb shanks. Everything else we get from the Spar in the village.”

Other words and phrases whose initial meaning might elude you include: “Please dial 9 for an outside line” which means “Please let us add the national

debt of several small South American countries to your bill by simply making a phone call from your room.”

And “Please let reception know what time you'd

like your alarm call,” which translates as: “If you'd

like your night disturbed by constant random phone calls that eventually subside at 5.30am, leaving you to fall at last into an exhausted slumber until 9, thus missing both the continental breakfast and your onward connection, then we're only too happy to oblige.”

Finally, you may want to know what the words “service station” mean but I'm under instructions this week to refrain from using words that have any associations with copulation so I can't properly do justice to these institutions.

Review the reviewer

The historian Andrew Roberts writes in this month's Literary Review about the plight of professional chroniclers of the past, such as he, whose works are increasingly reviewed, or awarded prizes, by those with no knowledge of history.

I have a lot of sympathy. The practice of jazzing up literary prizes by appointing celeb judges doesn't reflect confidence in the selling power of literature but rather a pre-emptive cringe on the part of the prize sponsors. It's as though they think books aren't capable of attracting passion and controversy in their own right so they need to drag in someone who will.

Similarly the practice of getting in either glam reviewers, or perhaps worse, critics who are motivated by spite or envy, is a poor reward for authors who've sent years on research and writing. Sure, the reader needs to be protected from tedium and wasted money, but protection comes from an honest review by a fair-minded critic with a bit of knowledge, not a firecracker piece from a look-at-me show pony.

Lost in translation

Thinking about phrasebooks - and what gets lost in translation - allows me to unload another crude Tory prejudice of mine. I've always harboured the suspicion that reading great literature in translation involves a loss of nuance, a sacrifice of subtlety, which few will admit to. It is not in the translators' interests to acknowledge what's lost in the process, and neither is it in the authors', if they're still alive and earning. But surely the suppleness of language in the original doesn't come through in the same way as when we're reading our mother tongue.

We all know that the weight, cadence, rhythm, colour, connotations and allusions of Dickens's or Waugh's language must be, to an extent, sacrificed when they're rendered in German. So what am I losing when I pick up Thomas Mann? And if I am losing something is it better to revel in the work of a second division Brit (James Hogg, George Meredith) than persevere with a foreign classic knowing you're not getting the best out of it? Can readers help? Are there some foreign works that lose nothing in translation? And if so, why?

Going on holiday? Learn tourism-speak

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