Introduction to Untranslatables by Cordelia Novak*


During a recent book signing event in Central London (I thought I’d just drop it in here), I was asked whether I ever come across any words, during my court interpreting work, which I see as untranslatable.

‘Untranslatable’ is a term which had been getting language professionals hot under the collar for decades. 

One school of thought is that everything can be translated, because there are no untranslatables, only the limitations of translators’ competences.

Internet is full of compilations of allegedly untranslatable words from languages around the world. German traditionally hogs most space on those lists, which is not entirely fair, as the German language has a habit of stringing a number of words together, calling it a new word, and looking smug about it, which is simply not cricket. 

I do not think of words which do not have a one-to-one lexical equivalent in other languages as untranslatable. They can still be successfully translated, they simply require the use of additional words to render their meaning in another language. 

An example of such word is Polish ‘kilkanaście’ which means a number between 11 and 19. 

I have heard this word interpreted rather nonchalantly as ‘a dozen or so’, or ‘umpteen’, but if accuracy is of fundamental importance, it requires the translation to state ‘between 11 and 19’, or ‘more than 10 and less than 20’.

The concept of a number between 11 and 19 (or more than 10 and less than 20) is easily understandable in both language communities, but the exact word for it does not exist in English and requires descriptive translation. I do not consider this an example of an untranslatable word.

Everything I interpret during a trial is important, and it is highly desirable that I remain on top form at all times, but when the quality and accuracy of my interpreting matters the most is when the defendant gives live evidence to the court, and I become their voice. 

My language pair is English and Polish, so naturally my examples are drawn from my court experience with these two languages. 

During my working day, I come across numerous scenarios where subtle differences between the two languages conspire to trip me over.  

The Polish word ręka can mean either arm or hand. A separate word for hand does exist, (dłoń), but ręka is often used instead. Where accuracy matters, I need to ask for clarification, but before I do, I need to ask permission to ask for clarification, and possibly explain why I am asking for clarification of such a common word without raising suspicion about my professional competence.    

The English word nephew does not have a one-to-one equivalent in Polish, but rather the Polish language always specifies whether the nephew in question is the son of your sister, in which case he is your siostrzeniec, or the son of your brother in which case he is your bratanek.  The same rule applies to the word niece.

Whenever I hear the word ‘nephew’, which needs to be interpreted into Polish, I have a choice to run with the Polish word for ‘your sister’s son’, which of course has a fifty-fifty chance of being correct, or it might elicit a fully justified response from the Polish client, ‘I don’t have a sister’, in which case I need to intervene and ask the asker of the question whether they meant their sister’s son or their brother’s son, at which point the asker might wonder why on Earth this detail is relevant to the interpreter, which then brings on an utterly irrelevant diversion whereby the interpreter educates all parties about linguistic differences between sister’s son and brother’s son in the Polish language, distracting everybody from the matter at hand.     

Several other words expressing family relations open themselves up to potential confusion. Polish seems to have a larger number of words which specify a variety of family relations, drawing distinctions between blood and non-blood relations. In English, sister-in-law can mean either husband’s sister, or brother’s wife. Polish has a separate word for each one, whereby husband’s sister is szwagierka, and brother’s wife is bratowa. Another case of fifty-fifty chance of either getting it right, or being informed by the client, ‘my brother doesn’t have a wife’. Russian roulette rules apply.     

Moving on from general vocabulary to terms which are specifically likely to be used during court proceedings, I have learnt to anticipate them and to negotiate them accordingly.  

An example of this are the words inference and conclusion, both of which are commonly used by lawyers and judges during the course of a criminal trial. They are commonly translated into Polish using one word, ‘wniosek’ for both. This is likely to cause interpreting problems towards the end of many crown court trials, when the judge provides the jury with legal directions that they are obliged to follow during their deliberations. In cases where the defendant either gave a no comment police interview, or chose not to give evidence in court, or both, the judge gives the jury an ‘adverse inference direction’ and tells them that they can draw an adverse inference from the defendant’s silence, but only if they are sure that it is fair to reach such conclusion. 

None of the above examples are untranslatable.

What I mean when I say that a term is untranslatable, I think of scenarios where a concept itself either does not exist in another language, or is not as widespread, or has different cultural and historical connotations and implications in each language community.  

This proposition is veering dangerously close to the realm of linguistic relativity theory, which, in unforgivingly simplified terms, is the academic hypothesis that the language we speak affects, or in extreme cases determines, the way we think about and interpret the world around us. It has been a couple of decades since I last approached language from an academic, rather than practical perspective, so I am not entirely sure whether linguistic relativity is still a ‘thing’, or whether it has been dismissed to the archives of science, as a fatally flawed argument. I should probably google it.

Polish language is famous or notorious, whichever way you prefer to look at it, for their endless litany of progressive diminutives. 

Where English has a dog, doggy, a little dog and a little doggy, Polish has a separate word for dog, doggy, little dog, little doggy, tiny little doggy, tiniest littlest little tiny doggy, and so on. Polish diminutives multiply and gemmate ad lib, until they begin to dissolve in their own absurdity (pies, piesek, pieseczek, psiak, psiaczek, piesunio, piesuncio, psina, psinka, psineczka).

Diminutives serve several purposes. They are used when talking to children, shrinking the world and all its objects to child-friendly proportions, although child psychologists have recently condemned this technique as potentially damaging to children’s development.  

Diminutives are used, excessively between lovers, as terms of endearment. It is common to hear a man great his loved one with, how is my tiny little froggy today? To which he is likely to hear in response, I am fine, and how is my tiniest littlest doggy doing? 

The list of animals on this love talk register is endless. Apart from the more obvious little cat, little dog, little bunny, you are likely to be called by your beau a little mouse, rat, hamster, squirrel, tiger, bear, monkey, as well as a vast number of domesticated and wild birds names, including all common poultry species.   

Creative use of diminutives might become an issue for a court interpreter when they are requested to translate text messages between ex-lovers after the relationship had gone sour and the estranged  partners meet in court as warring parties. 

I am not saying that a vast assortment of diminutives available to a native Polish speaker is completely untranslatable, but their nuanced use cannot be easily conveyed in English, which simply does not rely on them to a similarly large extent. 

Two Polish words which come the closest to being untranslatable into English have their origin in the specifics of Polish post-war history, and the ‘resourcefulness’ of Polish people which allowed them to carve up a decent existence during Communist regime.   

Skombinować and załatwić are the words which describe sorting something out, achieving, arranging, obtaining, facilitating or organising something in a rather vague, possibly underhand, possibly borderline illegal, way. Both words have a long history of describing how generations of Poles living with Communist era shortages of basic products, from meat and sugar, to fridges and washing machines, resorted to various degrees of wheeling and dealing, ducking and diving to overcome the stark limitations of their lives.

Several English translations for these two words are available, and I have been using them interchangeably, trying out which work best, and they do work, they do their job as well as they can, but they fail to convey the connotations that are immediately obvious to every Polish person, but inevitably lost on the English audience, because sorting out, working out, fixing, getting something done, arranging or organising something does not convey the baggage of all the unconventional thinking and inventiveness that over forty years of Communist era instilled in Polish psyche.

Another phrase which arose from years of mastering these unique survival skills is ‘A Pole can’ (Polak potrafi). It is used nearly exclusively in an ironic, sarcastic way, which alludes to the abovementioned ducking and diving methods of negotiating live under Communism. 

English has its own list of similarly untranslatable words, the words so deeply rooted in British culture that a translation will always only scratch the surface and sound only partly correct.

There is a tight competition for the title of the most British concept ever. My favourite word for the trophy is awkward. I mean the actual word awkward.

Feeling awkward is the British default state of mind in social situations in the way that is unmatched in any other country on Earth.

An exclamation, ‘Awkward!’, is difficult to translate, because you can only translate the word itself, leaving behind the excruciating embarrassment, the skin-crawling unease, the palpable discomfort, the utter mortification it inflicts on a British person in the middle of an awkward situation.      

English is great in creating precise, one-word descriptions for specific behaviours or concepts. To translate each of them into Polish, I need three to five words. 

I come across such words many times every day, because English is so full of them. Sometimes, I allow myself a luxury of reflecting on the language around me, rather than rush to complete the next sentence. I allow myself to stop and stare, and admire the incredible agility of the English language.

Gaslighting, gazumping, brinkmanship, whiplash, scaremongering, warmongering, serendipity, cold turkey, are just a few examples of such concise, semantically pleasing words. Some of them are reminiscent the German level of untranslatability.

This is what it takes to render each of the above words in Polish: 

Gaslighting – manipulowanie czyjąś percepcją rzeczywistości

Gazumping – przebicie oferty

Brinkmanship – taktyka balansowania na krawędzi

Whiplash – odgięciowy uraz kręgosłupa szyjnego

Scaremongering – wzniecanie paniki

Warmongering – podżeganie do wojny

Serendipity – szczęśliwy zbieg okoliczności

Cold turkey – leczenie uzależnień polegająca na gwałtownym odstawieniu środka uzależniającego

Everything I discussed here is only a tip of an iceberg on the subject of untranslatables and untranslatability.  

Academically inclined linguists have probably begun pulling their hair by now, which is as good a point as any to end my musings. 

*Cordelia Novak is the author of a book on court interpreting, View from the Dock, available on Amazon.
I have it on good authority that Cordelia is currently writing a sequel, with the working title Back in the Dock. Publication date of the sequel is as yet unknown. 

The Crown – a latecomer’s review

I come dreadfully late to the game, but at least I have made it in time for the next month’s Jubilee. I started watching The Crown last weekend and completed the whole 4 series in 5 days, which allowed me to cut my previous personal best in Netflix binging by over 24 hours.
My first impression, which, incidentally, I have altered since, was my dear God and Garden Fairies, what a ghastly show this is. 

Everybody is miserable all the time. The Queen hates her job and looks deeply and utterly unhappy. She never smiles and she never ever sees her two oldest children who hop around vast corridors of Buckingham Palace without anybody taking notice. 

Philip eyes everybody with suspicion and keeps his head oddly askew at all times. He is permanently grumpy and complains about everything, which is not an unusual male behaviour, we all know at least one such specimen, and many of us live with one, but I for one have always been led to believe that Philip was the Queen’s rock and anchor who offered her unwavering support for seven decades. 

I am willing to concede there are a few redeeming features; the Queen models a stunning collection of 1950s dresses. Claire Foy who plays the young Queen in the first two seasons, has grown on me. The young Princess Margaret is brilliantly feisty and glamorous. Matthew Goode is young Tony Armstrong-Jones. 

Season 3 brings a complete cast change. This takes some getting used to, as I have developed an attachment to Claire Foy by now and have begun to feel oddly protective of her. 

Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham-Carter took over the roles of the Queen and her sister. The true heavy weights of their profession, they felt wrong for the first couple of episodes, not the least because they were both a decade older than the women they portrayed.

Prince Charles deserves a special mention. I can almost feel sorry for the real one, if he watches. Almost. The series makers are determined to present him in the worst possible light, from a weakling child who refuses to even try to complete any physical challenge, to a grumpy idiot during his university years. Charles’ first day of his reluctant participation in the Welsh language tuition shows him attempt to interact with a recorded lesson. Comedy gold. Unless you are Prince Charles. 

Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher wins the tight contest for the biggest irritation of the series. Her butchered Thatcher accent sounds like a slow-motion comical take on the real thing, and makes season 4 almost unwatchable. 

This quickly becomes of small importance, as from the moment Diana comes on the scene, the whole thing is mostly unwatchable. 

I understand that The Crown is an American-made tale of British monarchy, and as such it was always going to be somewhat of a disaster, but some things stand out more than others in this unintentionally comical parody of life in Britain in the 20th century. One curious omission is the 1966 World Cup. It does not get a mention, not even in passing. 

I cannot wait for season 5. 

Blue Monday

Whilst the world is in the grip of an abhorrent war, and we are probably all doomed; the soaring energy and food prices make everybody more than usually angry and miserable; I have busied myself reaching further depths of shallowness, proving that shallowness can be very deep indeed.
I am quietly confident I have now secured my place among the highest echelons of the Very British Problems brigade.
This morning, I wrote a complaint to John Lewis expressing my disappointment in the fact that my new Denby Imperial Blue mugs are of a noticeably different shade to the rest of my Imperial Blue crockery range, which my family and I have grown to love for their unique and distinctive shade of blue. Sadly, the recently purchased mugs are so much darker from the rest as to be almost navy. Yours sincerely.
I can see very clearly whoever draws the short straw to read and respond to my complaint make a pained ‘why me’ facepalm gesture. I know I would.

I am sure you now all feel much better about your own lives and find them full of previously un-appreciated purpose and meaning.
Not a bad feeling for Monday morning. You are welcome.

Kettle Catastrophe

 

This is a cautionary tale of how unbridled consumerism can bring a person to the brink of insanity. It is also a study in trivial irrelevance, first world problem level expert. Expect no depth, no meaningful insights. You might, however, find one tangible benefit from reading this to the end. You are likely to walk away thinking, ‘and here I was thinking I had problems’.

I am not using the word insanity lightly. I wake up every morning with a strong suspicion that I have crossed the line beyond which madness lies and a complete nervous breakdown is no longer as unlikely as I would wish. If this offends you, because one should never ever joke about mental health, I suggest you stop reading now, because worse is to come, and I am past caring what people think. 

At the beginning of January our kettle broke. No matter how skilfully we tried to push the on switch down, it remained unresponsive. It just stood there, cold and grey. I liked our kettle. It was at least six years old, always there, always ready to support our family’s hot beverage habit. We are chain tea and coffee drinkers. Putting the kettle on is the first conscious thing we do in the morning and the last kitchen activity before lights go out at night. We put the kettle on whilst the remains of the previous round of caffeine fix are still warm in our mugs. 

We had a kettle-not-switching-on scare once before, but on that occasion my husband’s bush tracking survival instincts kicked in, and he managed to jiggle it back to life. He tried the same trick now, but the kettle was gone. Dead. I invite you to watch the dead parrot sketch at this point and you will get the picture of what we were faced with.

An emergency measure was introduced in the shape of a small milk pan with a spout. This was unsatisfactory on several levels. The pan was so small, it would only allow to make two and a half mugs at a time. The pan got covered in a white film of limescale very quickly. Also, crucially, especially in the mornings, when we were on tight schedule, boiling time was much longer than we were used to. This had to be a short-time solution. 

The situation required a robust response, so I got to work straight away. I started typing our old kettle’s name into Google, but then, and I think, looking back, I can pinpoint the beginning of my current mental state to that very moment, when my index finger froze over the keyboard, and I thought, ‘how about I look what else is out there’. And so it came to pass that instead of ‘grey Breville Lustra kettle’, I typed in ‘grey kettle’. Predictably, I was soon staring at hundreds of grey kettles. They stared back, mocking me in their steely indifference.

Possibilities were endless and that was to prove my undoing. 

To cut the long story shorter, we are now in February and I still scroll through pictures of hundreds of grey kettles every day, whilst the milk pan has gone so completely white with limescale, it looks like there is actual milk at the bottom of it. 

Early on in my quest, I had another major setback. My daughter asked me, innocently enough, why grey, our toaster is black, wouldn’t you like them to match? I had never run downstairs faster! I looked at the toaster, looked again, and kept looking. Was it dark grey, as I had always assumed, or was it, in fact, black? I have been looking at it every day since and I simply don’t know. I might never know. 

John Lewis has always been my go-to shop. The Oxford Street store is one of my favourite places in London (I know, I know), but on this occasion it has let me down. 

I have been working in Reading town centre for the last couple of weeks, and I have been to their John Lewis branch, kitchen department, every lunchtime without fail. For several days now, the store security guards could see me take the escalator down to the basement, stride purposefully across to the kettle display wall, and stop and stare. I would also pick up every one of their kettles several times, weigh them in my hand, play with the lid opening buttons, look inside, look at them from an angle, and then I would leave, abruptly, only to return the next day to repeat the same routine. They probably think I am planning a kettle heist.

In my choice of household items, I am invariably guided by aesthetics first, practicality second, with only perfunctory consideration given to the price. My husband despairs on each of these points. 

Trying to solve the current conundrum, I kept all options open. I used every adjective available to kettle seekers out there. Streamline, modern, no-fuss, stylish, elegant, retro, classic, traditional, high-tech, luxury, designer, hard-water, fast-boiling, quiet, I looked at them all. 

My husband is a man of above average patience. On days when I am less amiably disposed towards him, I might call it laziness, but in this instance I need him on my side. You see, my husband has waited patiently, with the rest of my family, for me to choose the new kettle, but now he threatens that unless I buy one this weekend, he is going to get a £12.99 plastic white one on Amazon on Monday. I feel a panic attack coming on. 

After Boris, What?

Stay Close (Netflix series) MAJOR SPOILER ALERT! 

Several friends contacted me this week. They felt, bless them, they needed to get in touch to ask me whether I was still standing by him. There was no need to name names, we all knew they meant Boris. 

My answers boiled down to something along the lines of, somebody has to, and it looks like it’s me. 

I am acutely aware that soon, I might be the last woman standing. Or perhaps Priti and I, long after Carrie leaves. 

But I am worried.  

Horoscope writers must be loving this week’s developments; ‘Days ahead not looking good for you, if your name is Andrew or Boris’.

I am not keen on conspiracy theories, but this current slow burning attack on the PM feels well planned and premeditated. Somebody has been gathering ammunition, waiting to pounce, and this week, pounce they certainly did. My money is on Cummings, the creepy king maker, but I cannot rule out Gove the career backstabber, Theresa May hellbent on revenge, or even the smooth operator, prince of furlough, Rishi Sunak.   

Cummings is the most likely candidate because he knows where all the bodies are buried, which means he can manipulate the situation any way he pleases. Not unlike the lovely Lorraine and her impressive collection of corpses in Stay Close. 

One of my friends who got in touch suggested that it might be the latest Mrs Johnson herself doing the dirty on her husband, as she decided  enough was enough and longed for a proper family life. Sweet and romantic as this idea is, I suspect she prefers to be married to the PM, rather than to an ageing, overweight dishevelled has-been he might become in not very distant future.

Why do I still stand by him?

I have several answers, all of them shallow and disappointing to everybody who feels genuine anger and moral outrage right now.

One reason for my ongoing loyalty might be that in movies, I often side with a villain. I am willing the script writers to allow the serial killer to get away with it, I cheered Hannibal Lecter on. Just something I do.

Another explanation might be my own moral decrepitude, but, I hasten to add that my sympathy does not extend to Prince Andrew. My dodgy morality is still kind of selective, it favours cannibal killers and rule breaking Tory Prime Ministers, but draws the line a jowly royal perverts.  

Joking aside, briefly, the real reason for my hanging on is that whatever happens immediately after Boris, politics will return to its dire dullness, which it was plagued by pre-Boris. His trademark effervescent enthusiasm, confidence  and optimism will be hard to replace. Nobody does buoyant belief in Britain like he does. No matter who replaces him, it will be a turn towards uninspiring boredom. 

PMQs between Starmer and Hunt? Kill me now.  

Another friend of mine decided to really test my Boris boundaries. She used a cunning what if question to probe what would make me finally abandon him. What if, she said, we were to find out that Boris had been to Jeffrey Epstein’s parties too, would that change my steadfast loyalty to him. That caused me considerable distress. I wish I could un-hear the question. The answer is that in those circumstances my last remaining scraps of decency would kick in, compelling me to ditch Boris, which in turn would create a vacancy for my hero-worship figure.  

This would pose a problem, as I believe we are experiencing a depressing deficit of decent candidates to admire in politics. 

As a diehard Conservative, I have a potential pool of 360 MPs to choose from.

Let’s have a look.

There is Jacob Rees-Mogg, whom I love to bits for his gorgeously Victorian demeanor and a voice to die for. His floccinaucinihilipilification moment alone would have been enough to have earned him my undying devotion, but I do recognise that he comes short. He is perfect for Somerset on a hazy summer day with a glass of cloudy lemonade, and his reclining skills are second to none, but I have to admit, with a heavy heart, that he is not quite suitable for much else.   

Sadly, that’s it. Nobody else among the current MP cohort makes me feel in the slightest way excited about politics. The good news is that after Boris goes, because I do fear his days are numbered, and it’s a steadily decreasing number, I will refrain from commenting on politics, until another Boris like figure emerges. And that is a promise.

(Selective) Memories of 2021


The top two most exciting sporting events of 2021 were Euros 2020, followed by Tokyo Olympics 2020. 
To an alien visiting Earth for the first time this week, the above sentence would sound absurd, but to the rest of us it sounds perfectly normal. This says a lot about how far we had come since it all began. 

Back to the two events. At the end of the first one, football very nearly came home, which felt very nearly fantastic. A couple of young players missed the penalties in the final shoot-out,  but it was alright, because one of them had made sure that schoolchildren were being fed during school holidays, so in order to deflect any abuse hurled at the players in the immediate aftermath of the penalties they had missed, we all decorated our social media profiles with temporary frames declaring we stood firmly with the three lions. That was nice. Were we becoming nicer in the summer of 2021? Some of us? Answers on postcards, please.

I do not remember much of the Olympics, except a very young child winning, or was it nearly winning, a skateboarding competition and Tom Daly knitting a Union Jack sock for his medal. 

What else happened? Meghan Markle gave an interview on Oprah in April, or was it June? Luckily for Meghan, somebody made a short video parody of it, which showed a bird pooping on her dress moments before the interview, which made Meghan tearful. Luckily, because there is now a good chance that in a couple of years time this might be the only thing people will still find worth remembering about that ghastly interview.   

Traditional spring events got delayed until the autumn, which meant both the London Marathon and the Chelsea Flower Show took place in October. Did Wimbledon happen at all? Ascot? Emma Raducanu won US Open, so that must have happened, but was it US Open 2020 or US Open 2021? I have no idea. 

It was hard to keep up with what was going ahead and what wasn’t. Weeks and months passed without a single lasting impression, and it all felt like a repeat of 2020, except schools stayed open. I never thought the day would come when I welcomed the sight of teenagers blocking the pavements at 3pm again, but welcome them I did, as they helped to restore a veneer of normality to the world. With bus stops, and top decks of buses, train stations, corner shops, and supermarkets reclaimed once again by noisy packs of children and teenagers, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was 2019 or another carefree year from the BC (Before Covid) era. 

2021 turned out to be the second year in a row when my passport did not see the light of day. We chose Scottish staycation for our main family holiday, which meant we not only stayed away from the stresses of tests to release and passenger locator forms, but significantly reduced our risk of premature aging due to sun damage at the same time. 

Meeting up with friends continued to feel like a guilty pleasure in 2021. Do we hug, do we fist bump, do we awkwardly raise hands in robotic hellos? Hugging a friend after a long absence felt like a defiance, immediately followed by sadness that it should feel that way. Vaccine status was nearly always mentioned at some point during those rare encounters, somewhere between reciting a list of cancelled plans and pondering the uncertainty of just about everything.

Today, as I prepare to say goodbye to the low key non-eventful 2021, in a low key non-event in my living room, I am allowing myself to hope that we will not see too many 2020 flashbacks in 2022, and will dare to dream of the return to the old normal.

Happy New Year!  

Book plugging season

My first Christmas in the UK ended up being a surreal event. I worked as a nanny in Muswell Hill at the time (book plug number one: the story of my nannying days features in the book), but my employers made it crystal clear that they expected me to make myself scarce from Christmas Eve until the New Year, so as not to spoil their picture-perfect family festivities with my strong Eastern European accent, my ghastly jumble sale clothing range and my general foreign weirdness.

My options were limited. Most of my Polish friends from Poland went back to Poland for Christmas, which I didn’t want to risk, as there was no guarantee I would be allowed back into the UK in January, or, to be more accurate, I knew that there was precisely zero chance of me returning to the UK in January, because I would have needed to secure another invitation, make a few trips to the British Consulate in Warsaw and convince the consulate worker that although I had overstayed the previous 6 months visa, I had no intention of overstaying again. (book plug number 2: I describe the whole process in detail in the book). So no, I wasn’t going back to Poland for Christmas. My friends from Westminster Cathedral Young Catholics group (you guessed it, book plug number 3, I write about them in the book), liked me well enough as an occasional badminton partner, but not sufficiently to invite me to spend Christmas with their families.

York University Natives came to my rescue once more (final book plug: York Natives feature in the book, naturally). One of them, Helen, charitably arranged for me to stay with her boyfriend’s sister’s American boyfriend at an… American army base, somewhere in Kent. She apologised for not being able to invite me to her parents’ house, as her family relations were strained enough without bringing an awkward, socially inept me into the equation. She didn’t say any of it aloud, the tactful person as she was. I cannot remember the exact location of the barracks, and I didn’t think it necessary to jot it down in my 1988 diary, so the name of the place is now forever lost to me in the murky clouds of time. It might have been Surrey, or one of the Sussexes.

The accommodation was depressingly bare and basic. Every room was packed with a mix of Americans and the rest of us, a gathering of misfits and lost souls that somebody took pity on. Christmas Day was spent trying to cook an enormous turkey in the comically small oven, and then carving it with an electric saw. Apart from the badly undercooked turkey, the food offering was markedly modest. Somebody had an idea to baste the worryingly pale looking bird in peanut butter and jelly (what else).

There was a lot of religion throughout the day. We celebrated the birth of Baby Jesus as if it were the one and only time He was going to be born in our lifetime.

As it turned out, Helen’s boyfriend’s sister’s American boyfriend’s girlfriend was expecting him to propose to her on Christmas Day. When the boyfriend got drunk beyond salvation and fell asleep by 5pm, his girlfriend became morose beyond reason. The last droplets of Christmas spirit, if ever there was any to begin with, evaporated quietly into the cold damp air around the barracks.

The moment I saw Helen’s car pull over outside on Boxing Day morning to take me away from the Kent or Surrey barracks, remains one of the happiest memories of my life, despite the fact that I have been rather spoilt in my choice of happy memories ever since.

2021 Panto Time!

Also known as Dick and Dom do Croydon!

A rare outing for all five of us together, but such was the pull of Dick and Dom in da house that we jumped on a 468 in unison, and off we went to Ashcroft Theatre at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, to watch Beauty and the Beast panto.

In our defence, we were given the tickets practically for free, interval ice-cream included, a couple of months ago, and it sounded like a lovely idea for a cosy family pre-Christmas day out at the time.

What can I say. I have seen better pantos. In fact, I am not sure if I ever saw a worse one, but perhaps I was expecting too much. It was never going to be Dawn French at the Palladium, it was always going to be Dick and Dom in Croydon. Dick himself acted as if he’d rather be anywhere else than Croydon. I am not a fan of the place, but when the Croydon jokes kept coming, even I thought they were laying it on a bit thick. Some people have no choice but to live there.

Dom was putting much more of an effort into his moves, he didn’t seem to mind making a fool of himself in Croydon. I mean, he was being paid to do so after all. They did the bogies routine, several times, and we even ended up singing ‘My bogies lie over the ocean, my bogies lie over the sea’. Yes, really.

The whole thing quickly turned into a Dick and Dom show. The Belle and the beast story persevered nevertheless, bland and irrelevant as it was. Gaston was weirdly renamed Benedict. I felt sorry for him a couple of times, as the audience made a big show of disliking him, and the booing went on awkwardly long each time he made an appearance. I was willing the actor to call it a day and walk out, because that might have made the show actually exciting, and worth talking about, but he remained politely bemused by the rudeness piled up on his character and waited patiently for the booing to subside.

This panto was clearly pitched at young audience, which was probably why I wasn’t loving it as much as I was hoping to, especially after being starved of theatre performances for the last 18 months.
The jokes were bad, but not so bad as to become good. You know the comedy is thin on the ground when a ‘madeira cake’ joke scores the biggest laughs.

To finish off our Croydon Christmas extravaganza, we went to a recently opened Wendy’s for a McDonald’s experience by a different name. My husband got a bit nostalgic there, as he had some fond memories of Wendy’s from his time in the US, many moons ago, so it wasn’t all bad.

Jeffrey Archer School of Writing Part 1: Write what you know about

A few days ago I took part in an online book club, where the guest of the day was none less than Jeffrey Archer, an author of some fame and renown, as well as a man followed by controversy, corruption and perjury scandals. Firstly, I would like to say what an unexpectedly warm breath of humanity Jeffrey proved to be. He was brilliantly entertaining throughout, his sense of comedy and situational humour was great, he came across as a skilled raconteur and conversationalist. He gave the book club host, who happened to be my son, a seemingly hard time, but after an initial shock of how abrupt Jeffrey was with my baby boy, who incidentally turned 27 on the day, I quickly realised that it was all done in the spirit of friendly banter in anticipation of fast approaching season of good will to all mankind.  

Jeffrey took questions from the audience for an hour, and did his best to answer them all at length, no matter how disjointed and random some of them were. Answering one of the questions, about the key to his literary success, he said, ‘write about what you know’. Nothing ground-breaking here, this piece of advice gets bandied about with such other pearls of writing wisdom as ‘make sure you do your research’ and ‘avoid dangling participles’ at every creative writing course in the land. And yet, somehow, for whatever reason, these cliched words sounded more profound to me than they would have done, had they not been spoken during my son’s book club, and had I not been, in fact, a great fan of Jeffrey’s storytelling for decades. The truth is, I read all his novels and short stories, some of them more than once. His books have accompanied me at many Mediterranean beaches over the years, so whatever the reason, the ‘write about what you know’ stayed with me, and I have been mulling over them since Thursday evening.  

It is easy for Jeffrey to follow his own advice and write about what he knows, because as far as I know, the things he knows read like a table of contents of a great novel, before he commits a single word to paper. He knows about being a long-term politician, winning an election to become an MP at an early age, becoming a deputy party chairman, being declared bankrupt, running for the post of the mayor of London, being a defendant in not one but two high profile trials, as well as working as an amateur auctioneer, and serving a long prison sentence.

What do I know about? An attempt to answer this question did not make for a comfortable journey of self-discovery. After some seriously intense navel gazing, head scratching and knuckle-cracking, I came to a painful realisation that, contrasted with Jeffrey’s capacious expertise, what I know about amounts to very little. What’s worse, none of it is of any significance or the slightest interest to anybody outside my closest family and friends, and even they tend to switch off half way through most of my stories, and then there are some stories which sound exciting to me and me alone, so I spare anybody else the agonising torture of listening to them.

Every time I think that I know quite a bit about something, I quickly discover there are people who know much more about it and in much more depth. Which means, the only thing I can safely say is that I know a little about a lot of things. I know a little about travelling, but much less than a lot of other people who know seriously huge amount about travelling. I know a little about film, but much less than a lot of people who know much more about film. I know a little about musical theatre, but, yep, you guessed it. There are people who can converse for hours about nuanced differences between Alfie Boe and John Owen-Jones performances as Jean Valjean, and which role was Lea Salonga most suited for during her career, and why, and this leaves me looking like an amateur, who likes to listen to a nicely delivered tune.

I know a few practical everyday things, which are not a good writing material. I know how to do gentle yoga, how to tidy the kitchen, soft-boil and egg, and how to ice-skate, none of them very well, mind you.

One thing I know quite a lot about, if I am not being unnecessarily modest, is court interpreting, and the intricacies of criminal and family law proceedings. The trouble is, I already wrote a book about it, and despite my best spamming efforts on Facebook and LinkedIn, it didn’t make a bestseller list and no movie deals were forthcoming, even though I still believe that Helena Bonham Carter would make the role of an intrepid Polish interpreter her best yet.  

The thing I know most about is children. My own children are the best thing that ever happened and keeps happening to me. Other people’s children are a different story, and on the whole they are greatly overrated. I also know that as soon as you give birth to three children, you will not have a dull moment for the rest of your life, or at the very least for the first twenty five years of their lives.

Impromptu conversations with teenagers are among life’s most precious moments, the perfect gems of absurdity and nonsense. Every parent goes through a multitude of such exchanges every week. This one took place about an hour ago.

– What are you watching?
– You don’t want to know. 
– I do want to know. 
– ‘Love hard’ 
– You were right, I didn’t want to know. 
– I did warn you, and now you know it, you cannot unknow it. Next time, take my word for it. 
– I’ll do my best.

This concludes part one of my Jeffrey Archer school of writing blog piece. I should probably check the copyrights issues with his agent before I come back with part two, so please do not hold your breath. I am a little concerned that what I am doing here might be akin to making the film, Being John Malkovich, without checking with John Malkovich, only on a such infinitesimally smaller scale as to become not comparable at all. 

It is what it is

Post-Brexit, post-pandemic public service interpreting offers a peeking Tom’s perspective on how the other half lives. In this case, the down in the dumps, half-forgotten half. Most GP consultations, most Universal Credit job coach interviews, PIP health assessments are still taking place over the phone.  A three way conversation with a telephone interpreter has never been a fully satisfactory way of conducting certain types of difficult conversations, such as mental health therapy sessions, or conveying unhappy medical news. Service providers, service users and interpreters alike, we all have long resigned ourselves to this unsatisfactory reality of how non English speakers access public services. ‘It is what it is’ has become our mantra. 

Today, I am assisting a homeless man who is speaking to a homeless charity, or rather the man is shouting and screaming his frustration down the phone towards his support worker who has called to check on him, because she is worrying about the state of his mental health. At the start of the conversation, she informed him in a monotone dispassionate voice, that she had completed  all the necessary data security training and all his details will be kept confidential unless, during the course of the conversation, he discloses something which would indicate that either he or somebody else is in immediate danger of harm, in which case confidentiality rules will no longer apply. 

The man interrupts, ‘Hello, hello? Can you stop sounding like a recording and start speaking to me? I don’t have much time, what do you want? What are you calling me for?’
 – Adam ( not his real name), we have received information that your mental health is a concern, and that you are being suicidal, is that true, are you having thoughts about ending your life? 

– You’ve received information? Wow! From whom? The CIA, the FBI? Do you have me followed? Have you got nothing better to do, I do not have time for this, I had to leave at 7am this morning, so I could get to the Park Place (not real name) soup kitchen by 11, before they stopped serving hot breakfast, and now I am on my way to Croydon (real place, but not the one he really said he was heading to), to use their free showers, I will then go to the Junction for dinner, and then back to the house. By the time I finish today, I will have walked for about 7 hours, because the place I am staying at now has nothing, nothing, nothing at all, I don’t even have a kettle to make coffee, today I had the first hot meal for 3 days, I have nothing, nothing, nothing. I was better off on the streets. In fact, I will return the keys today, and I am out of there. You can offer my bed to another of your projects. 

– Adam, we offered you a food voucher yesterday, but you refused to ..

– No! I am sorry, but I don’t want your food vouchers, I told you before, that stuff is inedible, send it to Afghanistan if you dare, I don’t want it. 

Adam then proceeded to reiterate that he was leaving the accommodation the next day, as he didn’t appreciate the way he was treated there, with nothing to sit on, no cupboard to put his belongings, no cooking facility, no food suitable for human consumption. His rant was erratic and inconsistent to my impartial ear, and it must have been a stuff of nonsense to his support worker. Adam sprinkled his monologue with unexpected eloquence and witticisms, even if they were not matched by logic or reason. Nothing positive could possibly come out of the conversation, but we carried on for close to an hour.   

Is any of this shocking? Not to me, not any more, not after interpreting a hundred similar conversations in the last six months or so.