They say the past is a foreign country, and nowhere in the UK is that more true than Cornwall. It isn’t just the eight-hour drive from my home in the North to its white beaches and warm seas that makes it feel like going abroad: this was once a distinct country with its own language and customs, like Wales, rather than a mere county of England, and many locals will insist it still is.
I visited the area last week for the first time, and was struck, driving around, by the number of signs on roads and pubs which carry translations in the ancient language of Cornish. Cornish has been mostly displaced by English in the last 200 years, just like its sister tongues Breton and Welsh, but has recently made a big comeback – particularly because of its value to the tourism.
Thus, although few now understand it, the word ‘Privedhyow’ can be seen even in the big chain pubs, pointing the way to the smallest room – where you will need to choose between ‘gwer’ and ‘benynes’.
Translation in the travel and tourist industry in the 21st Century is about more than just making yourself (and your customers) understood: it’s also about the experience. When the first phrasebook was written in 1424, it could take weeks to travel from Leeds to meet a colleague on the shores of the Mediterranean: a journey which today takes mere hours by plane – or can be avoided entirely with a Skype call.
In a world which has got so small, where there’s a McDonald’s on every corner, tourists can sometimes feel they haven’t gone anywhere at all, and the truly ‘foreign’ country may be a thing of the past. The death of languages leads to the loss of cultural heritage – oral traditions, jokes, poems, and legends – which are exactly the stock in trade of hotels and tour operators.
Whereas tourists of the past wanted an easy life, today’s holidaymakers probably place a greater value on authenticity and experiencing the culture of their host country. It’s no coincidence this comes as employers themselves are recognising the benefits of celebrating employees’ native language and local knowledge.
Good translation in signage, brochures, website and even in staff eLearning packages is not only the responsible and helpful thing to do: it’s good for business, and as in Cornwall, helps attract the modern experience seeker.
As they say in Cornwall after all, ‘Nyns yw unn yeth lowr’ – one language is never enough!