If you are going to get something disastrously wrong, get it wrong in front of a HUGE crowd. That's my motto.
A terrifying speaking disaster I suffered opened my eyes to a new danger in crossing cultural boundaries.
I was giving a speech at a school in mainland China. "Today, children, I am going to tell you the story of the Library Girl," I said. (This is a folk tale I have expanded into an epic.) Here's the beginning of it.
Once upon a time there was a farm girl who broke her leg. She couldn't climb the library stairs.
She began to cry. Then she had an idea. She got a chicken from the farm and sent it hopping up the steps. It went into the library and hopped onto the librarian's table.
"What do you want, little chicken?" the librarian asked.
"Book-book-book-book," the chicken clucked. And the librarian gave the chicken a book, which she took back to the little girl. Every day the farm girl sent the chicken up the library steps. And every day it brought back a book for her to read.
Then one day the chicken came down the stairs with a book that she had already read. "Take it back and tell the librarian I read this one last week," the girl said. But that was too hard a sentence for a chicken to learn.
The girl began to cry. Then she had an idea. She got a frog from the farm and sent it up the library stairs with the book. It hopped onto the librarian's table. "Why are you returning that book? Is there a problem with it?" the librarian asked.
"Read-it, read-it, read-it, read-it," said the frog.
And so on. You get the idea. Each animal makes its usual sound, but humans hear the sounds as words.
Well, I was only a little way into the story when I realized that the kids had no idea what I was talking about. I suddenly remembered that the sound that chickens make is not perceived in China as book-book-book. To my audience, chickens go gordok, gordok, gordok.
Worse still, in mainland China, frogs quack like ducks. I know that sounds weird, but it's true. Frog ponds such like Donald Duck episodes.
Animal sounds are a real minefield for travelling authors. In Bengali, a rooster will say: cooho'koohoo, while in Chinese, he'll go: gor-gor-gor-gor, and in Thai, he will say: ake-e-ake-ake. Weirdest of all, English speakers (this is not a joke) believe roosters wake up every morning and say "Cock a doodle doo." The most accurate are speakers of Portuguese, who claim that roosters say cocorococo.
So there I was, in mid-sentence, realizing that the story I was telling would make no sense to my audience. What to do? I had no idea. So I simply continued, leaping around and putting my all into my animal impressions.
The children roared with laughter.
The teacher told me afterwards: "The first time you came, you told them a story. That was okay. But this time you just talked like a crazy man, made no sense. I think they like this better."
There's a moral to this tale, but I have no idea what it is.