Posted by: patenttranslator | October 8, 2012

Keep Smiling and Learn Czech or Chinese If You Want to Keep Your Job

There is something macabre and indescribably sad about people who have a permanent smile frozen on their face, as instructed by their supervisor, to make customers feel good about the corporation employing these poor people.

There is nothing as beautiful as a genuine human smile. Especially a small and still innocent child or a beautiful woman can bring so much light into the darkness of our days with a hundred megawatt smile. But this only works when people are also free to display other feelings than happiness through their expressions. Otherwise, the hundred megawatt smile is a façade hiding sadness and sorrow, although the happy customer is unaware of this as he can only see the smile.

I noticed how personnel that used to be called stewardesses, before the word for some reason became sexist or demeaning, or both, automatically put on a beatific smile the moment they leave the area in the back of the plane where they warm up the meals for passengers last week when I was flying from Prague to JFK.

There was one young bilingual man, probably gay, serving the aisle where I was sitting who had a natural expression on his face. He would look kind of pensive at first, and then he would crack a joke about something in response to a question from a customer and both he and the customer would burst into genuine laughter. This is how things used to be when I was working in the hospitality industry in the early eighties. I understood instinctively that I needed to be friendly and helpful towards the customers to keep my job, but nobody ever told me that I must have a smile permanently plastered on my face.

Things were different back then, more relaxed, more free, more natural, and more hopeful.

There is an unfinished short story by Mark Twain called “Mysterious Stranger” that I have been thinking about a lot lately. I read it a long time ago when I was about 10 years old. It tells the story of Satan, sinless nephew of the biblical Satan who befriends a group of small boys in an Austrian village in the Middle Ages. The village, had it existed, would be not very far from the little town where I was growing up at the time, only a few short centuries after the Middle Ages.  Perhaps that was why I felt that I could really relate to the story on a personal level.

In one of the episodes of the story the boys ask young Satan, who is a fallen angel trying to please human children rather than the Devil, to fulfill a wish for them. They ask him to make a preacher who just had his heart broken, I forgot why, something to do with his daughter I think, happy for the rest of his life.

Satan instantly grants them their wish by turning the preacher into a crazy man who is always smiling as he has only happy thoughts on his mind. The little boys did not realize that only a crazy man who no longer has a hold on reality can be permanently happy. But their wish could not be taken back once granted.

I usually fly Delta to and from Prague, and Delta used to employ a mixture of American and Czech personnel on this flight for many years. The Czechs would speak English with an accent at various levels of fluency, sometime not that well, the Americans spoke only English. They were mostly young, mostly female, and mostly pretty. They smiled frequently as I recall, but they did not have a permanent smile glued to their face back in the nineties.

But I heard only Americans on the flight I took from Prague to JFK last week who spoke native English, while several of them also spoke almost accentless Czech. Only difficult sounds like “ř” or a wrong ending in one of the myriads of alternatives for Czech noun declensions would sometime betray their native tongue. They were really good.

They probably have mostly Americans who speak native English and almost flawless Chinese on the Delta flight from JFK to Shanghai now.

I am so glad that I don’t need to have a permanent smile plastered on my face when I am translating patents from various languages that I can fake so well into English because nobody sees me when I am working. I can even drink coffee, or listen to music sometime when I work depending on what it is that I am translating, and of course I don’t have to stand the whole time when I am working.

Unlike the bilingual flight attendants on that particular Delta flight, I can also take a nap or walk my dog whenever I want to.

But most importantly, I can still have a whole range of natural expressions reflecting my present state of mind on my face even when I work, and I can even write about it and put it on the Internet.

Because if I had to have a smile plastered permanently on my face, it would drive me crazy.


  1. No, no, Steve, you are not a crazy patent translator. You are a mad patent translator!

    BTW, the “ř” sound happens to be in the Chinese phonemic repertoire, too. Most European language natives would betray their native tongues when they speak Chinese once they encounter this specific sound.

    I guess it’s too late for me to learn Czech (to keep my job? Ha!), but I smile when I see Charlie plays the globe. How lucky he was when he didn’t have to be afraid of a fatwa against him when he parodied on Hitler and Mussolini. He had something else to fear later: McCarthyism.


  2. 1. Well, if you still lived in Germany, you would not be able to watch the Youtube videos. For some reason, people in Germany can’t watch them. I wonder what that is about.

    2. So Chinese has both Czech “ř” which no foreigner can pronounce, on top of 4 tones and thousands of characters consisting of many strokes that must be memorized stroke by stroke, including the correct sequence of strokes.

    It’s almost as if the Chinese decided hundreds of years ago to create a second Wall of China around their language and culture that would be all but impenetrable to foreigners by making their language so devilishly difficult to learn for foreigners.

    The English chose the opposite approach so that unlike basic Chinese, basic English is quite easy to learn, so easy in fact that “bad English” became the most useful language in the world as a friend of mine put it once.

    Although the simplification of Old English, which had various declensions for nouns and conjugations with irregular verbs, is probably mostly due to the practical approach of Vikings who simply kept butchering the complicated language that they refused to learn in all of its glorious complexity until they succeeded in creating the miracle of “simple English”.

    Which is not to say that English is simple to learn, of course. If you want to learn it well, it’s just as difficult as any other language. But if you want to learn it for just the basics that one might need, it is quite easy to do that.


  3. 1. Honestly, I don’t know all the reasons why Germans do things the way they do. The regulation of YouTube videos in Germany is a riddle to me, too.

    2. I guess all languages are difficult for non-natives at the first encounter.

    There are some Russians in Taiwan, more than 100 persons. One of them is a 23 year-old young girl who speaks Chinese almost the same way we do. You would hardly figure out that she is a non-native over the phone. She is in Taiwan less than 3 years. I asked her how she has learned Chinese so quickly. The answer is: “Oh, I listen to people and try to speak the way you do. Chinese is so easy. You don’t need to think about the grammar. Nobody can explain the grammar to you, anyway.”

    The greatest problem with learning a foreign language might be: we try to break down sentences and look for rules. (Rule-based Human Translate in comparison to Statistic-based Google Translate? Both fail.) Sure, there must be some rules in a language, but there are about the same amount of exceptions.

    Both you and I are analytical minds. This could be a bless and/or a curse. Our life is too short and we have to set priorities to make it comfortable for us individually.

    BTW, Miguel Llorens died last month, at age 41, and I miss him. I have downloaded the whole blog site of his together with the structure and will try to get the permission of his family to keep his blog online for some time or compile an eBook of his posts for future translators.


  4. I know about Miguel Llorens. I was reading about it on blogs while I was in Prague, but I could not find out why he died at such a young age.

    I never met him but I loved his blog and we exchanged a number of comments during the last few months.


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