Mr. Small's Trip: SOUTH-EAST ASIA

Mr. Small

            If ever you decide, in the middle of telling a children’s story, to modify it, I would advise you to have an Indonesian translator around. It is a sure way to prevent the change from ruining the original story.

            Before I explain what I mean, let me tell you the story behind the story. Two friends and I travelled through South-East Asia over the summer, and, in Jakarta, we met an Indonesian who worked for a local NGO. She was very friendly and offered to show us some of the work her organization--Bina Mandiri Indonesia--was doing.

            When we arrived at the kindergarten, classes were out. Seeing no children, I imagined we would look around and leave. Our new friend, however, had other plans. From our conversation upon meeting her, she knew we were teachers. As students began to arrive, she announced that we would teach them. Though we protested, we could not dissuade her.

            All too soon, we were on. We decided to start with “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I quickly realized how difficult this song is to perform even when you know English. I can’t tell you how many times I pointed to my eyes when I should have pointed to my nose, or how often I began to rise to touch my head only to realize I was supposed to bend and touch my toes. I am amazed the children were able to learn the song, given they were performing it in a language foreign to them.

            Next came story time. My two Canadian friends claimed they couldn’t remember a single children’s tale between them, so the task fell to me.  After several minutes scouring my memory, I decided on “The Three Little Pigs.”

            The room fell quiet.  Forty eyes stared at me.  “Once upon a time,” I began.  Our Indonesian friend translated my words into Bahasa Indonesia.  I continued: “there were three little--”  Then a thought seized me. The population of Indonesia is over 85% Muslim. How would the children react to my story?

            I didn’t have time to ponder the cross-cultural implications. In an instant, I made my decision and finished the sentence: “lambs.”  My two Canadian friends gave me looks.  Our Indonesian friend dutifully translated.

            Only I kept forgetting that I’d begun the story “The Three Little Lambs,” and, every so often, I’d say “pigs” instead.  The tale would have been terribly confusing had it not been for our friend and Indonesian translator.  She would wait for me to finish a sentence, and whenever I mistakenly said “pigs” instead of “lambs,” one of my Canadian friends would cough, and I’d correct myself before she translated the error.  After a while, she began to translate almost as I was speaking, so I assumed she was ignoring my mistakes and using “lambs” every time.

            At the end of the class, I asked her how she thought the story went.  “Very well,” she said. “There’s just one thing. Why did you keep saying ‘lambs’ and not ‘pigs’?  You confused me!  I think I must have said ‘lambs’ myself a couple times.”

            Needless to say, our time at the school was a learning experience for more than just the schoolchildren.