Lost in translation

Roaharon sign


Sometime or another I wandered into an antique store and admired a placard.  You know the kind, with a brief phrase painted in bold letters on a faded plank and made to look old.

They used to be trendy.  Everybody seemed to have them, every room proclaiming snippets of comfort, advice, wit and wisdom.  They got so popular they sort of lost their uniqueness, like those giant brass stars on houses and the graceful wire reindeer yard ornaments at Christmastime that were impressive the first time you saw them but not so much so the thousand and first.

What drew me to this particular sign wasn’t just the fact that it was attractive, which it was, but the message itself.   It said, in fat letters, “Work hard and be nice.”  Simply that.  It reminded me of “Keep calm and carry on”, a British quote that pops up regularly on posters and tee-shirts.

I thought to myself – and said to my wife – that it would be wonderful if more people would work hard and be nice.  Not wanting to forget the phrase, I took out my cell phone and snapped a picture.

I mulled over the simple little mantra during the next few days.  Then I decided to do something I do very rarely.  So rarely, in fact, that I told myself not to do it at all because I would probably screw it up.

I should have listened.

I posted the photo on Facebook.  Now you’re thinking I violated some sort of copyright or privacy rule and am even now involved in a lawsuit or maybe even twiddling my thumbs down at the jailhouse.  Neither is the case, and I hope you’re not disappointed.   I did have enough sense to ask the owner for permission.

Where I made my mistake was in not facing the fact that I am somewhat inept at doing anything involving Facebook.  I’m a very, very bad friend of a good many people, many of whom I don’t even know (when I took my first plunge into social media I befriended everybody who asked me). And I don’t check my page as often as I should, so some people who expect me to complement their grandchildren or their casserole recipe probably feel snubbed.

But I liked the little message on that sign so much that I wanted to share it, believing that if more people would just work harder and be nicer the world would be a better place, and believing that even I could attach a photograph to a comment box.

I still believe the first part.

The problem was that not all of the picture made the transition.  Probably there are some options that I overlooked having to do with size, or borders, or maybe pixels (I have no idea what pixels are).   Anyway, the first four words showed up nicely, but the last one, all by itself at the bottom, got snipped off. So what all my friends, whoever they are, actually saw on my posting was “Work hard and be.”

Still, I received an abundance of little thumbs-up, indicating that lots of people liked it.  So either those people were just being polite or they bought into a philosophy I hadn’t intended to espouse.

I considered posting a correction explaining what happened, but figured I’d best leave well enough alone. Mark Twain’s advice came quickly to mind:  “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

In retrospect, the abbreviated wording makes a good point in its own right, sort like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” and the army’s “Be all you can be.”  And that wording that I fouled up might have been just what some folks needed to hear. Who knows?

Phrases and quotes, even when translated correctly, sometimes have different effects on different people, oftentimes not conveying what the author or speaker intended.  Here’s an example.

Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS reporter, told the story of walking through the ruins of a section of London with his wife the morning after a particularly bad barrage of German bombs during WWII.  Mrs. Morrow looked at a single word painted over the doorway of a pub and was so moved by its message for people who had lost their homes and perhaps members of their families that she started crying.  The sign said “Courage.”

Murrow couldn’t bring himself to tell her that “Courage” was a brand of beer.

Anyway, work hard and be nice.  Or work hard and be.  Take your pick

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