Milking it
October 22, 2010

30th September was International Translation Day, which, like a slap in the face with a dictionary dipped in sour milk, was a sharp reminder of the need to update this blog a wee bit more often. A few days later, former Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez came along with his attempt to introduce an element of lactose-related español to a press conference diatribe. The Iberian Peninsula and dairy products being subjects close to any Spanish Cow’s heart, the opportunity could not be missed.

A bit of background for those that have no interest in football (that’s you, Mum): Rafael Benítez Maudes is a football manager who made his name with Tenerife and Valencia and took the reins at Liverpool in 2004. His time at Anfield was marked by massive highs and disillusioning lows, but will also be remembered for his 2-year spat with American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who took over in 2006. It’s a convoluted tale, but in a nutshell, he didn’t like them, they didn’t like him, and Benítez was shown the door this summer. He promptly became coach of Inter Milan.

Fast-forward to this Tuesday. Rafa, in response to claims by the recently ousted Hicks that the blame for Liverpool’s poor form should be laid squarely at the door of the Reds’ former manager , made it clear to the media that he felt the opposite was true – ‘things were fine until the Yanks came along’ was pretty much his line of argument. To illustrate his point, he used a Spanish expression related to milk bottles.

Who’s right, who’s wrong and all the other tedious tit-for-tat twaddle isn’t really the point here. What’s interesting about this story – from a linguistic point of view – is the way it has been dealt with by the ever-insular English-speaking press. Almost to a man, the Spaniard’s monologue was described as ‘bizarre’ and ‘cryptic’. These words were so widespread that it makes you wonder if modern journalists have ever heard of a thesaurus. A quick glance at a basic online version reveals many useful candidates, such as ‘unorthodox’, ‘eccentric’ or ‘curious’ for the former , and ‘enigmatic’, ‘mystifying’ and ‘perplexing’ for the latter. But that’s by the by.

The point here is that it was neither cryptic nor bizarre. Benítez wasn’t havering or slavering; he was simply falling into the trap that people communicating in a language other than their own have done billions of times since man gained the ability to talk. He made the mistake of using an expression, or idiom, that is commonplace in Spanish, but doesn’t make an awful lot of sense in the language of Shakespeare. Idioms, like Scottish clubs in the Europa League, generally don’t travel well.

So what exactly were Benítez’s words? Attempting to explain that, for him, it was obvious who was to blame for Liverpool’s woes, he said, “We have a saying in Spanish, which is, ‘White liquid in a bottle has to be milk’. At the beginning, they changed the managing director…and they changed everything that we were doing in the past…So, if you want to ask again what was going on, it’s simple: they changed something and, at the end, they changed everything. So, white liquid in a bottle: milk. You will know who is to blame…White liquid in a bottle. If I see John the milkman in the Wirral, where I was living, with this bottle, I’d say, ‘It’s milk, sure’.”

(Amusingly, the Daily Telegraph caught up with the aforementioned John the milkman, who, with a nice line in gentle comedy, demonstrated that he may actually have chosen the wrong career for himself: “Rafa was a very good customer. He just got the three bottles of semi-skimmed. They didn’t have to be placed zonally on his step or anything.”)

The Spanish phrase RB was referring to is ‘Blanco y en botella, leche’. The closest equivalent in English is an expression sometimes heard in the United States, ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck’. In Spanish it is delivered much like ‘Speak of the devil [and he doth appear]’ is in English, in that ‘leche’ is often not actually said or written; it is simply implied (let’s face it, no-one knows about the ‘he doth appear’ part these days, let alone says it). So it looks like milk, tastes like milk, it’s in a bottle: aye, it’s probably milk. In other words, if most people say the Americans businessmen were to blame, if it looks like they messed things up, well, actually, they probably did. In Rafa’s opinion.

In reports, articles and opinion pieces reminiscent of the reaction to Eric Cantona’s 1995 comment about seagulls and trawlers, the ‘bemused press corps’ (© every newspaper in the UK) then proceeded to describe poor old Benítez, who had even gone to the trouble of pointing out to the monolingual idiots present at his media conference that it was a non-English expression, as ‘mad’, ‘in need of a holiday’, ‘stressed out’ and ready for the ‘men in white coats’.

If Ron Atkinson, Bobby Robson, Chris Coleman, Terry Venables or Jock Wallace (British managers who all worked in Spain at one point) had literally translated ‘Don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched’ into Spanish at a press conference, you get the feeling that the reporters present wouldn’t have been calling the local asylum. They would more than likely have understood from the context, and sensibly realised that what the speaker was getting at was ‘don’t sell the bear’s skin before hunting it’ (‘no vendas la piel del oso antes de cazarlo’), the Spanish equivalent of counting your poultry. Our lazy old friends ‘bizarre’ and ‘cryptic’ would be nowhere to be seen.

As an aside, another version of the chickens proverb in Spain – ‘no hagas las cuentas de la lechera’ – involves a milkmaid who starts totting up all the cash she can make from all the ‘leche’ she’s extracted from her cow that morning, before spilling it all over road while on the way to the market. Far be it from me to suggest that the Spanish are ever-so-slightly obsessed with milk…

As a second aside, it’s interesting to note equivalents of the tongue-in-cheek expression ‘the son of the milkman’ in countries that don’t have home deliveries of the white stuff. In Spain, the baker is the bloke you have to be wary of, while the postman has been known to do the dirty deed in France. Spanish Cow is yet to discover a country where the candlestick maker is the cuckolding culprit, but we’ll keep looking.

Returning to Rafa’s ‘rant’, Benítez can surely be excused. He’s a bloody football manager, after all. And, as anyone who has ever had to sit through one of his post-match TV interviews will confirm, his English could never be described as fluent or natural. But as for the supposedly ‘educated’ media, erm, isn’t this one of the first things you learn in French/Spanish/German class, i.e. when you’re 10? That things that sound like they might be specific to the English language (or any other language) often can’t be translated literally? And don’t these journos deal in communication every day, for milk’s sake?

To paraphrase Señor Benítez, if representatives of the British media come across as lazy, stupid and ignorant, talk like they’re lazy, stupid and ignorant, and write lazy, stupid and ignorant things, then, well, they’re probably lazy, stupid and ignorant. White liquid in a bottle: milk.