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I Do Not Think it Says What You Think it Says

August 15th, 2011 by skippy

In the late 90’s I got to take part in what at the time was the latest military escapade in Eastern Europe, the KFOR peacekeeping mission to Kosovo. My elements from my detachment went in the first wave, and I personally crossed the border within the first few days.

For the first several weeks it was a special kind of chaos, the likes of which I have never experienced at any other point in my life. Three quarters of my detachment had just re-classed from other MOSs, which meant even basic tasks were brand new. Nobody in my detachment spoke any of the local languages. For a brief period I was the translator because I had spent nine months in a country with one language in common, and I owned a Serbo-Croat/English dictionary. I would communicate with a local by a combination of taking turns flipping through my book to point at words, charades, and interpretive dance.

Real interpreters were in short supply and units deemed more critical got first dibs. None of these people, at this point, were local speakers, mostly college kids from Albanian families, and the odd older person from another part of Europe. In order to create loudspeaker broadcasts to assist the local population we would have to beg or bribe other unit’s interpreters into helping us out.

One of the earliest loudspeaker campaigns was “The Fighting in Kosovo is Over”. The title pretty much gives you the gist of it, and it was followed by details about refugees returning home, and how to try and get help from NATO. After about three weeks of driving all over the country playing this we finally got interpreters of our own.

The first day that we went out with our new team mates, we drove out to a small town. I set up the loudspeaker on the roof of our hummer, and we drove through the main drag, our message of hope blaring away. I felt a tug on my leg. The new guy was giving me a worried look.

“Excuse me sir? This recording…I do not think it says what you think it says.”

You see, when different places speak the same language, local dialects and slang tends to develop. Frequently a word might technically mean one thing, but commonly be used another way. Like, bitch, literally, or peruse. A college student from the States who learned Albanian from his immigrant parents, grandparents, or even a classroom didn’t have much of a chance to pick a lot of that up.

And that was how I spent nearly a month driving around Eastern Europe loudly announcing to everybody that “The Fucking in Kosovo is over.”

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12 Responses to “I Do Not Think it Says What You Think it Says”

  1. Ian M Says:

    Ohhhhhhh, deeaaaarrrrrrrr …..


  2. M578jockey Says:

    OMFG!!! That is absolutely hysterical. did you notice a drop in the birthrate 9 months later?


  3. Matt Says:

    But it was only just begining…


  4. jebbers12 Says:

    im guessing google translate is black listed by the military?


    SKD reply on August 15th, 2011 10:05 pm:

    Google Translate gives you a literal translation. Dialects and slang could be incorporated over time but their fluid nature means that it will always be behind the times.

    As well, Google Translate did not yet exist at the time of the story. Heck, the public internet was still in its infancy


    AFP reply on August 16th, 2011 7:27 am:

    Also, Google didn’t exist back then, let alone Google Translate. This was in the old days, when the Army wore BDUs.


  5. Taliesin Says:

    Well… I guess it could be taken to mean the same thing.


  6. Travis Says:

    I have an essay coming up for one of my university politics papers and one of the possible questions is on the problems within Kosovo, im supposed to write about the war crimes or the NATO bombing campaigns but i think this is worth at least a paragraph


  7. JMireles Says:

    When I was in Iraq, I came up against a similar problem. Not all of our interpreters were Iraqi. The one I worked with the most was Lebanese. Anyone who has dealt with Iraqis knows that their dialect of Arabic is one of the oldest, and therefore not completely understandable to outsiders. One day, I had occasion to take care of an Iraqi guard. His problem was easily solved by chewable pepto. The Iraqi word for “chew” is garrut, which apparently isn’t the word the Lebanese use. So, imagine the confusion on the guard’s face when my Lebanese interpreter tells him to chew the medicine, using a word he doesn’t recognise. It was even funnier when, without thinking about it, I supplied the correct term.


  8. SCALexD Says:

    I am sitting in Starbucks, reading this, and I all of-this-sudden start cackling at the top of my lungs in laughter. Fucking hilarious!


  9. Liz Says:

    Oh that is just too priceless! Though if you think about it, from a meta standpoint you could argue that they’re sort of the same thing…


  10. David B Says:

    Well, at least you weren’t blasting “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty. Come an join the Nazi party!” Like my cousin was when he was in Afghanistan.


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