by Mara Campbell and Britta Noack
Welcome to our brand new column, where we will strive to shed light on cultural references from the US and the UK. Films and shows are riddled with snippets of life that often influence the way we should translate innocent-looking dialogue, and, since translators are usually native speakers of the target language, they might not be acquainted with the culture, current events, or popular history of the country where the material takes place. Some are more evident and stand out enough to prompt research, but others are very subtle: a silly catchphrase, a funny accent, a hidden play-on-words or slogan, or even elements like the way a character dresses or what it means when one social group interacts with another, none of which are recorded in dictionaries.
We, Britta and Mara, are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. And sometimes having more than one culture to compare makes you more aware of certain nuances. Britta has always been glued to either a screen or a book trying to teach herself foreign languages, English in particular, and figuring out all the slang, puns, proverbs and colorful expressions that come with it.
Living in the States for almost 17 years has helped her understand the American way of life, and marrying into a family that lives and breathes baseball has deepened her love for the game and everything that comes with it. Currently, she is residing in Germany temporarily, but makes sure to get her dose of all things US on regular trips “home” several times a year. Similarly, Mara, after a lifelong fascination with cultural references picked up mostly from American coming-of-age comedies of the 80s and, later, British police crime dramas, moved from Argentina to the UK and started noticing many more elements of the British way-of-life that impregnate the screen. She quickly developed an obsession and started filling notebooks.
From the UK: London Calling!
In the UK, the expression “to call” seldom has anything to do with the use of a telephone. That would be to ring or phone somebody. “To call” refers to visiting a place or a person; it’s the British equivalent of the American “to drop by”.
Although it might sound somewhat old-fashioned, it is perfectly normal to ask someone if you can call at 3 o’clock to pick up the book they are lending you, or you can call at the bank to make a deposit. Trains and coaches (long-distance buses) call at stations, and the normal tannoy (P.A. system) announcement on a train sounds something like, “This is a train to London calling at Didcot and Reading.”
A use of “call” that might sound a bit more familiar is in the expression “a gentleman caller”.
In the early- to mid-20th century, women could have a love interest or a suitor which they would refer to as a gentleman caller because he would come visit her home. Funnily enough, this expression was coined in America, but the use of “to call” as in “to visit” was discontinued there.
Although this is a definition that is easily found in a dictionary, it is important to point out the frequency and normalcy with which it is used in the UK, so as not to thoughtlessly translate it in relation to a phone.
An Argentine newspaper made this mistake when they translated the title of the 1895 painting by William Merritt Chase “A Friendly Call” as “La llamada amistosa” (The Friendly Phone Call). The painting portrays two women of the era chatting in a living room with no telephone in sight (the gadget would become mainstream three decades later).
From the US: Going, Going… Gone!
I have always been a baseball fan. Even before moving to San Diego in 2002, I played baseball in college in Germany. But back then, I had absolutely no idea how much America’s favorite pastime influences ordinary speech and how little that might make sense to someone not familiar with the game or American culture.
The following are some of my favorite phrases used in various contexts in everyday speech:
1. Ballpark Figure/In the ballpark: This refers to the huge size of a baseball field. Usually, a hit lands somewhere inside the park, so a ballpark figure is an estimate of something, a range or an approximation. Example: I had no idea how many people in the US speak a second language, but my guess was more or less in the ballpark.
2. Knock/hit it out of the park: Well, sometimes the ball does actually leave the park and since this is not something that happens too often, this phrase describes anything related to success. Example: I saw many interesting presentations at the last ATA conference, but Mara hit it out of the park with her presentation about subtitles.
3. A brand new ballgame/A whole new ballgame: When you watch a soccer game, for example, and the score is 4:0 and there are only 10 more minutes to play, the chances that the losing team will catch up are slim to none. The same is not true for baseball, where anything is possible. A team that is trailing could all of a sudden tie up the game or even take the lead. This expression means a complete turn of events or change in circumstances. It is completely different from what came before.
Example: I was really struggling to succeed at work, but now I have a new team and it’s a whole new ballgame.
4. Curveball: One of many different methods for the pitcher to throw the ball at the batter. Curving unexpectedly, it is used to confuse the batter. In everyday speech, it expresses an unexpected surprise, mostly something unpleasant. Example: I was supposed to go on vacation next week, but life threw me a curveball when I broke my ankle yesterday.
5. Step up to the plate: Baseball players step up to home plate to attempt to hit a ball into the field and ultimately score. Stepping up to the plate means rising to an occasion in life. Example: It is time you step up to the plate and take responsibility for your actions.
Well, this is but a start to the many baseball references you’ll hear in American speech, but I do hope it will help some of my fellow AV translators avoid getting caught off-base while working on some major league projects ;).