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.

Suivez the leader
October 23, 2009

Tony Blair defined the art of leadership as “[…] saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.” (Good advice; just a pity he didn’t follow it himself). Theodore Roosevelt believed that “The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” (There is many a translation company owner out there who could learn from that wee pearl of wisdom).

Spanish Cow takes a slightly different tack – I’ve always found that the quickest way to find out if someone is a sheep or a shepherd is to listen to him singing The Proclaimers’ modern masterpiece “500 miles (I’m gonna be)”, the ditty that introduced the Scots word “haver” to millions of non-Scottish English-speakers around the world. The key moment comes just after the chorus – if your guinea pig sings along with the first “na-da-da-da”, he’s destined for a life of dribbling in front of the latest reality TV fad and snapping up the newest gadget that Apple or Microsoft decide is essential for the survival of the human race. If, however, he opts to belt out the second aforementioned “na-da-da-da”, then you may well be looking at a future Hannibal. Or Simon Cowell. Or Tony Soprano. And what a dinner party guest list that would be…


Anyhoo, what’s this havering got to do with language? Well, I was left pondering the role of leadership and assertiveness in foreign language communication recently, after a Skype chat with an old translator friend from France that I hadn’t spoken to in quite some time. We both possess roughly the same level of rustiness in each other’s lingo, but what was interesting was that he didn’t try to force ‘his’ English on me, as some fresh-from-graduation linguists have an irritating tendency to do. As I had started in French (but with a complete willingness to switch to English, should he prefer), he twigged that I quite fancied giving the ol’ skills a polish for the duration of our conversation, and duly let me blunder onward. The old rule that many language-lovers apply when choosing which language to converse in – the “we’re chez vous, so we’ll speak chezvous-ish” wasn’t valid here, as we were both shouting from the comfort of our own countries. It is, however, a sensible, logical, nice n’ simple rule to stick to, even if others don’t always reciprocate.

Conversing in a foreign language is an activity that comes complete with a pile of funny, unwritten rules of engagement, etiquette landmines and blooper bombshells, where explosive egos abound, both boisterous and bruised. There exists a certain type of linguist – be he anglophone, hispanophone or francophone – who will, without fail, attempt to take the lead and ‘force’ a language on you (never his own mother tongue, mind), because 1) he’s spent X number of years studying the damn thing, and he’s going to make sure that the evening’s tongue of choice is, well, his choice, no matter what it takes and 2) he is assertive by nature, used to getting his own way – why should the domain of language be any different?

This normally leads to a bout of swift, spoken swordplay, where only the strongest survives. If you consider yourself to possess a level of proficiency in any foreign language, you are sure to recognise this situation. It can last anything from ten seconds to three minutes. Oh, and like most uncomfortable moments, it’s really quite comical if you’re simply there as an observer, NATO-style. Jean-Louis is in Spain to learn French, but this darn Luis character that he’s just met at the gym (and who remembers a smattering of French from school) insists on speaking to him in the language of Baudelaire rather than that of Cervantes, which is frustrating for poor J-L, coz all he wants to do is practise his Spanish verbs and that tricky difference between ‘por’ and ‘para’. Every time he utters something in Spanish, Luis stammers back in bad French, until J-L gives up. On top of that, Luis is looking at him in a funny way, and keeps brushing against him accidentally…no, whoops, sorry, that’s another blog for another day.

There is an extra unfortunate element to all this, if English happens to be your mother tongue. My experience of residing in France and Spain is that, as a native English-speaker, prior expectations of you are so low that people automatically assume that you can’t speak a word and will often drop into English upon discovering from whence you originate, irrespective of their lack of knowledge or fluency. Unless you prove early on in the chat that you can claim some kind of competence, your chance of avoiding a pidgin English discussion is about as likely as Balloon Boy’s parents avoiding a custodial sentence. Or as an eagle hunting a reindeer. Bugger, bad example.

As with many things, however, maturity brings acceptance and a certain level of calm when faced with the different phenomena described above. I’m fortunate to know polyglots who have developed enough self-confidence that they no longer mind nor care what language a conversation is held in. They don’t chomp at the bit any more to show off how good their German is to native German-speakers, or to dazzle the first Tokyo-dweller they’ve met – since they lived in the city twenty years ago – with their grasp of Japanese vowel sounds. They possess an inner sense of satisfaction about the dividends that learning languages have paid them over the years and therefore feel no need to assert their ‘linguistic rights’. And that kind of behaviour, you could argue, is what true leadership is all about.

An Udderly Appropriate Name…
August 25, 2009

Bienvenue, Wilkommen, Bienvenido etc. to Spanish Cow, a brand new blog full of musings and meanderings on language, translation and the universe.

We thought it might make sense to commence this cunningly linguistic web log with a brief explanation of its name. No, it’s not just part of that oh-so-clever modern trend to randomly juxtapose two words with the aim of creating something eye-catching (blue banana, horny giraffe etc.), although, let’s face it, it does sound kinda cool.

spanish cow

In fact, it comes from the French phrase “Parler français comme une vache espagnole”; literally, to speak French like a Spanish Cow. And slightly less literally, to speak French badly (dodgy grammar, painful pronunciation etc.). A bit like the unfortunate lady locked in a French town hall recently. But it can apply to any language, when it comes down to it – these days, you’ll also hear Francophones proudly proclaiming that they’re as adept at murdering “chinois” or “anglais” as Castilian bovines.

So why does the cow from Spain get treated with disdain, in the main?  The origins of this expression – first recorded in 1640 – are as murky as a fresh cowpat, but there are two principal theories.

The first and most well-known tail, ahem, tale, blames it on the pesky Basques. The story goes that “Vache” is simply a mangling of “Basque” (“vasces” or “vasque”  in 17th-century France) – back in the day, someone with poor French was instantly compared to those supposedly illiterate barbarians living across the border…

The second, not dissimilar theory states that the word started out as “basse”, which meant “servant”, and simply became “vache” over time. With many servants having moo-ved (oh God, no) from neighbouring Spain (and presumably struggling with the lingo a little), you can see how this might have come about.

Anyway, whatever the truth may be, that’s what we’re called – we look forward to chewing the cud with you in the forthcoming weeks and months. But we promise not to milk things too much.

And here endeth the cow puns.