Today I would like to look at some expressions which work well in Czech or Slovak but don’t work so well if you translate them word for word into English and can even cause you real problems.

The first one is – NEGATIVE QUESTIONS.
I understand that in Czech or Slovak, it’s considered really polite to use these, but not in English. A student of mine was once lost in London and so she decided to ask a policeman for help. “Excuse me, don’t you know where Buckingham Palace is?” she asked, being a nice well-mannered Czech girl. The policeman did know where Buckingham Palace was and he told her, but before telling her, he gave her a short lecture about her grammar. To her great embarrassment1, he explained that asking a question like that usually means that either the answer is really obvious or you think the person you are asking is really stupid. So no negative questions, please.

Next, let’s think about THE WORD ‘MAYBE’.
Many years ago, when I lived in Banská Bystrica, somebody invited me to visit her at home at the weekend. I answered “Maybe” because I knew that I didn’t really want to go but neither did I want to get into a long discussion. I saw her a few days later and she was genuinely upset2 that I hadn’t been to see her and gave me a hard time about it. That was the point at which I learned that the Slovak môže byť and its Czech equivalent může být, which I understand as meaning something like “OK, so we have agreed on that” actually mean pretty much the opposite of our “maybe”, which, a lot of the time, means “My answer is no, but I am too polite to say so openly right now.”

Another problem I had in Banská Bystrica was about TIMES OF THE DAY. I had only been in the country for a short time, and my boss said she wanted to talk to me. “Can you come in the morning?” she asked. For us, ‘morning’ is any time before noon and my Latin teacher when I was at school always insisted that morning only finished when you ate your lunch. I arrived at eleven o’clock. She was not at all pleased, and both of us learned a valuable cultural lesson. Another expression I hear all the time and which drives me crazy is “BE SO KIND AND …”, which again is obviously meant to be extremely polite and is a literal translation from Czech and Slovak. Unfortunately, it’s not something we say or ever said.

The nearest English equivalent would be “Would you be so kind as to…?”, which is very old-fashioned now. To find it used in the same way as Czechs and Slovaks use “Byl byste tak laskav a …” and “Boli by ste taký láskavý a … ” you would probably need to look at novels written about 200 years ago, so at the very least you would sound like a character created by Jane Austen. But it gets worse; these days the phrase is usually used only when somebody wants to be very sarcastic and rude. If you do want to show this kind of rather formal politeness in English, it’s much better to say something like “Do you think you could possibly…?”

▼ Have you ever had an embarrassing experience when speaking English? What happened?
▼ Problems caused by language misunderst andings are often funny; do you know any examples?
▼ They can also have serious consequences; again, do you know any examples?

Simon Gill

Vocabulary: 1 rozpaky, pocit trápnosti – pocit trapnosti; 2 skutočne rozčúlený – skutečně rozčilený