A prominent and popular Brisbane journalist once wrote of touring Germany in a car and getting lost; in such a huge country it’s no wonder, of course. He told of stopping to ask for directions. However, as his German was quite poor, he was concerned along the lines that “for all I knew I could have been saying ‘The dog is in the bathroom’ “.
This article amused me greatly and stuck with me, as some things inexplicably do. Some years later, when I was in a job requiring me to deal with French people¹, I rather spontaneously asked how you said “The dog is in the bathroom”².
Things snowballed, albeit irrationally, from there. Working for an international firm, it was easy to feed the obsession, pestering travelling colleagues to inquire of the locals for the translation of the phrase, which in turn quickly evolved into also grabbing a wav file of them reciting it. This led invariably to quizzical looks and a spreading reputation for me as someone who, technically perhaps, was in possession of both oars, and who, it was possible, was possessed of a good working knowledge of water, but who in fact had no inherent ability to bring the two together in any meaningful way.
Still, I was able to recruit most of the department I was working in to help out. It’s good to spread the crazy.
Inevitably, there were some….incidents….in following this little hobby:
- I had to be prepared to tell the whole back-story to each new donor and pretty much anyone else who heard about it – this got tedious to the point where I considered producing some laminated cards, but I reconsidered on the basis that anyone that went to that sort of length even I would have had to concede was unwell.
- We thought up a secret project name for the whole thing to mock similarly-impenetrably-cloaked company M&A projects. We thought we had better stop when we were on the verge of being granted a budget – some things can be carried too far.
- I started giving the phrase to secretaries in the pertinent language as a recommended greeting for visiting businessmen from overseas. This generally amused me greatly, until of course they found me afterwards. A visiting Frenchman eyed the secretarial victim-de-jour when it came his turn and said “Hmmm. I know exactly who you’ve been talking to.”
- There were apparently some dirty looks when the Zulu translation was sought because there was no direct Zulu translation for “bathroom”.
- When a geologist friend of mine asked a local colleague in Colombia how to say it in Spanish and if there were any other dialects in which it might easily be procured, he was only too happy to oblige.
This resulted in his poor, agèd, sainted grandmother on the other side of the country being press-ganged into climbing a mountain near her home to find and ask the local Arawak Indians the translation in their language. The Arawak Indian chief initially recoiled and refused to give it to her because he feared that the strange foreign woman was a witch and that she was planning to use the phrase in an incantation in order to curse his people.3
- On New Years Eve at the turn of the century, our host’s dogs actually were locked in the bathroom. When I discovered this, my delight, in concert with the inevitable levels of prevailing conviviality (shall we say), I was heard to be wandering around the party excitedly uttering the phrase in as many languages as I could remember at the time. Some kind people suggested I might benefit from some sort of personal attention (specific suggestions, I am informed, varied wildly), but since I was doing little more than babbling and mugging like an idiot, everybody settled for avoiding me in as non-obvious a fashion as was practicable. From my perspective at the time this was probably entirely redundant but in retrospect I appreciate the consideration.
I still have this kicking around in an Access database somewhere – there are well over 50 translations. One day, when the collection is suitably large so as not to be embarrassing (culpable irony, I do realise) I hope to email all of this to the journalist in question complete with the whole story.
And then I can start collecting restraining orders.
1 It’s not as bad as people make out.
2 Le chien est dans la salle de bains, as it turns out.
3 I am not making this up.