Get on the train!

Post date: May 28, 2012 8:57:56 AM

It's no secret that I like travelling by train. Always have. So much so that when I travelled to Calais this week by Virgin Trains and Eurostar, I found the journey too short. It seemed that just as I settled down to enjoy the trip, it was time to get ready for arrival.

The return journey was different, however. I've never been particularly impressed by the design (and facilities) of the Calais Eurostar Station. The shop/café closes early, and there's nowhere pleasant to sit (it's even worse once you've gone through security). Plus the train was late, so we were cramped into the departures "lounge" for about an hour. Then we had to queue for passport control on arrival at St Pancras, having already had our passports checked by UK Immigration at Calais. I think this is something to do with the fact that the train comes from Brussels, and there are different arrangements in France and Belgium. But I'm not sure.

And then, and then...the 10.30 from Euston takes the best part of two hours to get to Birmingham International, instead of the usual one hour 20 minutes. The trip involves a timetabled 20-minute wait at Milton Keynes, and a programmed 10-minute idle at Rugby. There are presumably sound operational reasons for this northwards dawdle, but the passengers are never privy to these.

From a language point of view (he's finally got there), the trip was interesting for a number of reasons: first, there is a famous sign at Calais Fréthun which manages to be incomprehensible in two languages (the phenomenon of "bilingual incomprehensibility" is surely an underexplored one). I never fail to enjoy the sight of French- and English-speakers clustering in puzzlement beneath the sign (which basically says "way out" in an obscure way in two languages - quite an achievement). Next, there is the bizarre array of announcements, which vary in quality and tone to a quite laughable degree. The pronunciation of "Frethun" without the acute accent on the "e" is one thing, but the bizarre English-language announcements of train arrivals take the biscuit. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. The trilingual on-train messages delivered by the train manager deserve some plaudits, despite the perfunctory machine-gun delivery. However, one can't help feeling that Dutch is always the poor relation, with barely a nod in the direction of articulation as the speaker zooms through the text. Dutch-speakers would probably get more out of the English announcement.

The point of this post is that fascinating issues relating to languages and translation are never very far away in Europe. The language services industry, however (in other words the very people who could be providing solutions to these issues), is largely conspicuous by its absence: very few potential customers think of turning to a specialist to resolve language-related issues; and if they do, they are only willing to pay peanuts. As linguists, we need to be more confident and innovative about the range of services we can provide, and how much we can charge for them. It's up to us!