This French connection clearly lost in translation

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Before something gets lost in translation, let's just say my track record with foreign languages certainly isn't the stuff Rosetta Stone is made of.

Back in high school I took German. After all, it's part of my ancestry. Dad went to a German-speaking Lutheran church school when he was young. And who didn't want to know what Col. Klink and Sgt. Schultz were trying to say on "Hogan's Heroes?"

But after three years of high school German under Frau Ulrich (the first faux blonde I ever knew exposed by her dark roots) and one dreadful semester of college Deutsch, my German language repertoire, to put it mildly, is quite limited.

Oh sure, I can order some potatoes, give you directions to the library (if it's straight ahead) and tell you what a good-looking sister you have -- all thanks to those superficial listen-and-repeat language labs.

But could I carry on a conversation with a real German? Could I sneak behind enemy lines and blend in with the Black Forest bunch? Could I have muttered more than the German equivalent of "Oh-h-h, Hogan ..."?

Sadly, probably not.

Then there's my knowledge -- using that word loosely -- of Japanese.

Having been fortunate enough to go on two economic development mission trips to Japan over the past 20 years, you'd think I would have picked up a little bit of Japanese. At least enough to get me on the right bullet train or order something to eat that wasn't squid cloaked in tempura.

After all, the Japanese-American Society of Indiana took great pains in exposing us to Japanese customs and offering a language primer before we flew off to Tokyo, Osaka and Ota City.

But since the folks we encountered on those trips tried so hard to please us by speaking English, rarely did we need a single word of Japanese.

And that's probably for the best since I was living in fear I'd choke under the pressure, remembering only Styx rock lyrics and mumbling "domo arigato, Mr. Roboto" instead.

Yet here I am with a chance to visit Paris on the horizon this summer and craving more vocabulary options than oui-oui, oo-lah-lah and the chorus to "Mademoiselle from Armentieres" ... hinky-dinky, parley-voo.

So I find myself currently enrolled in a Putnam County Horizons French class that convenes in the community room above the Greencastle Starbucks.

But that is where something gets lost in translation. Running a few moments late the other day as we try to navigate the upper-floor maze at Starbucks (think mezzanine area of the old Prevo store), the only door we find says not to open it because an alarm may sound. Yet an old friend sitting nearby does just that for us, momentarily stopping my breathing and halting my heart as I envision Chief Bill Newgent and the Greencastle Fire Department standing in front of us, axes in hand.

Recovering enough to trudge up a flight of stairs and enter the room with class already in session, something still didn't seem right. There we were greeted by Midori, a DePauw student from Japan, standing in front of the room, holding a map of Japan and talking about her home city of Yokohama.

I don't know -- or as the French say, je ne sais pas -- maybe it was the idea of learning French from a Japanese girl in the middle of Indiana that confused me. Or perhaps my confusion comes from sharing the language of love with classmates as lovely as Cammie, Carolyn, Evie and Erin.

Or maybe it's the idea we sing a song ("Aux Champs Elysees," for example) at the end of each class like we're Maurice Chevalier or someone. Perhaps that's in case we're forced to karaoke in Paris like I endured in Japan (to the tune of "Piano Man" incidentally). Anyway, now I understand how Ozzy Osbourne must have felt when he tried to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley Field.

So forgive me for not being able to resist picking up my reporter's notebook and jotting down for all to see: "Why do I feel like Dan Coats?!"

Surely you remember that fiasco.

Just a couple weeks ago, all the national news stations took particular delight in airing video of the Hoosier senator showing up to testify before a committee. As Coats began to talk, you could see committee members seemed completely lost until an aide slipped Coats a note and he laughed and said, "Apparently I'm in the wrong room."

Yep, definitely knew that feeling well the other Saturday morning.

Yet through all that, all I could think about was conjuring up my best high school German to emulate Col. Klink muttering, "Oh-h-h-h, Hogan!"

So there you go -- the risk of an international incident this summer nowithstanding -- vive la France.