Mario Vargas Llosa, IKEA and Romanian
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
“The TLS is the most serious, authoritative, witty, diverse and stimulating cultural publication in all the five languages I speak”
Thus is Mario Vargas Llosa quoted in an ad that appears regularly in the TLS. While it’s fantastic for the paper to have received such an encomium from the great Peruvian novelist, and his judgement is, I’m sure, entirely correct, part of it has always struck me: “. . . in all the five languages I speak”.
Even if that meant “all the five languages I am able to read proficiently”, it would still be pretty impressive. In Mario Vargas Llosa's case, that would be Spanish, English, French and . . . maybe Italian or German and Portuguese.
I thought of this quote recently, as I was happily assembling a couple of lamps from IKEA.
Along with the usual wordless images in the accompanying leaflet was a set of instructions in thirty-one — thirty-one! — languages about what to do if the item was faulty, kicking off with English (inevitably), via Swedish (a modest ninth in the running order), Slovak, Croatian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Kazakh and ending with Hindi.
It prompted me to compare the different language versions of the two-sentence instruction, which begins “If the external flexible cable or cord of this luminaire is damaged . . .". The Russian and German come out the longest — German with a mere two compound nouns — and Arabic and (Mandarin?) Chinese the shortest. The Finnish looks like a sequence of titles of tone poems by Sibelius: “taipuisa kaapeli”, “valtuutettu”, “tavarataloon”. Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Slovenian and Turkish appear to have the most diacritic marks — although Ukrainian is quite heavy on them too.
Interesting to see that the Malaysian, a language I'm totally ignorant of; appears to have several borrowings from western European languages: "kord", "fleksibel","eksklusif", "individu".
But what struck me particularly was the flowing cadences of the Romanian: “Dacӑ cablul electric al acestui corp de iluminat este deteriorat, va fi înlocuit numai de cӑtre producӑtor sau de agentul de servicii al acestuia . . .”, with its Latin inflections — “inlocuit”.
Recently, there have been some unpleasant headlines in the British tabloid press about the anticipated “invasion” next year by Bulgarians and Romanians free to travel across the EU to find work. Apart from the arrogant assumption that they would naturally want to come to Britain rather than, say, Italy, or even stay put, would it not give us the chance to learn a few words of what is clearly a beautiful language — to which most of us have up until now only been exposed through the hideous rantings of a tyrant addressing his scornful people from the balcony of his presidential palace? The current Romanian prime minister, in a counter-ploy to the tabloid headlines, urged Britons to come and visit his country. I have every intention of answering his call. I may even try to learn a few words of the language.