• Stephen Balogh

How to deliver a Spanish message without Chinese whispers


One particular 2½ hour train journey from Budapest to Vienna in summer 1988, part of a classic multi-country Interrail itinerary, was memorable for me in more ways than one. I’ve already related an encounter in our railway compartment that led to a highly poignant pen friend relationship (https://www.baloghblog.uk/post/a-pen-friend-in-another-world) in a separate blog entry, but what I have in mind just now is the unfolding of a communications conundrum that doubtless would have taken an instant to resolve had it been in the smartphone age.

My travelling companion was heading to his parents in Spain whereas I was stopping off in Vienna overnight before catching the early train to Hamburg, but he needed to let them know because they would have to pick him up from a particular rail station a couple of hours’ drive away at a particular time some 36 hours later in the early hours of the morning once he had made the multi-leg rail journey to northern Spain.

But his parents had no phone in their house.

But the message therefore needed to be relayed via a neighbour.

But my friend’s connection in Vienna left him no time to find a phone box and call that neighbour and nor was he sure he could make the call elsewhere en route.

But I could make the call on his behalf.

But that neighbour didn’t speak English

But I didn’t speak Spanish.

Solution: He wrote out the message in Spanish and then, crucially, a version in cod phonetics for me to enunciate as accurately as possible. He handed both sheets to me with his thanks and we agreed to meet on the Paris to Calais boat train some 10 days thence for the final leg home.

But the Viennese friend I was staying with was an excellent and convivial host and I totally forgot about my errand amidst copious Schnitzel and Riesling until late in the evening.

But help was at hand.

Solution 2: My host said he knew someone who was a fluent Spanish speaker who would be happy to make the necessary call if I handed the script to him.

But I could now only find the phonetic script (where had the Spanish version gone?).

But the Spanish speaker friend couldn’t speak English, only Spanish and German, and he couldn’t understand my attempt to read it out over the phone.

But instead my host drove over to his place with the phonetic script and phone number.

But I needed to get to bed then to rise for that early train to Hamburg and would have no idea whether the call and all that would need to follow had taken place.

Until the day of the rendezvous with my Interrail companion (I via Hamburg, Cologne, Bonn and Paris, he via Pamplona and Toulouse) on the Paris to London boat train 10 days later, there having necessarily been total radio silence in between.

Thank you, he said, all had worked well.

The neighbour had taken a call out of the blue.

The parents had been informed.

The pick-up had taken place.

The arrangement had been perfect.

But just one thing: the neighbour spent the entire week praising to the skies the clarity of my message delivery and near perfect accent (but, oddly, with just a hint of German in there) but in just a few places some very strange attempts at wording that she simply could not comprehend.

So it was only then I could tell my friend the following:

The message was not delivered by me.

But actually delivered by an Austrian,

Who spoke good Spanish,

Whom I never met,

Who had no idea about whom he was talking,

With a cod phonetic script designed for an English speaker,

That he reverse engineered into Spanish,

And thereby adequately reconstructed the message.

A chain of events Google Translate and email would have elegantly resolved in a trice.

But much less exciting and exacting of human ingenuity.

Fin.

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