In 2006 I spent 6 weeks in India as a volunteer sports coach. I was located in the south west, in a town called Madurai where I shared a volunteers house with 6 others.
My placement got off to a slow start, but once I hit my stride I had an amazing time. My experience owed a lot to a Mr Pradeep who was our volunteer liason in Maduari. A kind and talented man, Pradeep was our Mr fix it. He helped us with bus tickets, plane tickets, places to eat, places to buy suits, sending packages home, the lot. The thing was, getting the necessary information from him wasn’t always the quickest or easiest. This in no small part was down to the art of the head wobble (“0”).
The head bobble, head wobble, or Indian head shake refers to a common gesture found in South Asian cultures, most notably in India. The motion usually consists of a side-to-side tilting of the head in arcs along the coronal plane. It is often performed by the listener in agreement with what is being said by the speaker, such that the speaker perceives there is ‘no problem’ with the message currently being conveyed. [Wikipedia]
I grew to love the head bobble after a time and even started wobbling myself, but for my first couple of weeks in India I just didn’t get it, it was the epicentre of my frustrations.
Me: So the tuk tuk will be here at 5am?
Pradeep : (“0”)
Me: …. so 5am yeah?
Pradeep : (“0”)
Me: … is that a yes or no?
Pradeep : (“0”)
Me: What time will the tuk tuk pick me up?
Pradeep : 5am
Ah, got there in the end.
It’s probably my fault for being ignorant and learning if only a small amount of the local languages. But when asking for directions, what time a bus leaves, or when trying to order some food the head wobble just wasn’t giving me the answers I wanted.
I laugh now, but back when I was first exposed to its brilliance I just didn’t get it. Was it a yes or was it a no? In this case I was trying to establish what time I would be picked up from our volunteer house to be taken to the school where I would be teaching for the day. Sometimes getting info out of Pradeep felt like getting blood out of a stone.
It felt like I was a kid again and when asking my sister a question she would do everything in her power to give me the most unhelpful answer possible. Truth is, he was giving me the answer, just not in the way I was used to.
In English a shake of the head means no, a nod means yes. A wobble usually means you’ve had too much to drink. In Indian though I found that a wobble (“0”) indicates that the listener is agreeing with what the speaker is saying. So Pradeep was simply agreeing with me, the tuk tuk would arrive at 5am. I got used to it in the end, but some of the other volunteers resorted to only asking questions in a way that a spoken answer would always be needed, not the worst idea truth be told, but maybe not as fun.
When travelling, a lot ends up getting lost in translation. Maybe you miss a flight, maybe you misunderstand the price of something, or maybe you make a pass at someone you shouldn’t (oops!). Either way, communicating with someone from another country who may speak a different language and who has probably grown up in very different surroundings to your good self is not always the easiest.
Sometimes you are rewarded for your efforts and you achieve your desired goal through a combination of broken words and suspect hand gestures, but on other occasions the gap in understanding might just be too great to conquer. I expected this to be fair and knew I may come a cropper more than once on my travels due to gaps in communication and misunderstanding, but I thought it would be purely a language based thing, I never thought for a minute that gestures with hands and my head would come into play. I mean we all know that this means we’d like the bill please.
HSBC not so long ago launched an interesting advertising campaign demonstrating how a certain act, colour or number can be deemed lucky, positive and friendly in one country, but unlucky, negative or disrespectful in another.
This got me thinking about my own travel and where I may have got lost in translation. One memory instantly jumped to the front of the queue, my memory of the brilliant head bobble.
What about you? Have you fallen victim to anything that has been lost in translation?
Neil lives over at Backpacks and bunkbeds where he write a wee bit about travel and post lots of photos, and even a few videos now too. He is quite fond of cheese, a good beer and football (the Englishmen kind). But needles, pigeons and onions are his nemeses.
Although he’s only been blogging for a year or so, he’s been travelling on and off since 2005. Now based in London, Neil still travels when he can escape the dreaded 9-5, and already this year he’s been to Grenada, Croatia, Ireland and Spain … and the lucky swine is off to Spain again in a week or so, more specifically Fuertaventura. Next year (yep he’s preparing already) Neil’s heading back to Ireland (friends weddding), back to Turkey (sisters wedding) and then embarking on a new adventure with a joint trip to Loas and Cambodia. Tres exciting.