AS SOMEONE who has taken a bit of ribbing over the years for his malapropisms in Slovak, I feel I have earned the right to comment on the use of English by Slovaks. And I’m afraid to say that the name the authorities chose for their World Hockey Championships 2011 mascot – Goooly – is rather unfortunate. In Britain, gooly is slang for testicle, although it can also mean a pathetic loser, according to the online “urban dictionary”. Either way, the Slovak ice hockey association might want to have another crack at it.
Such balls-ups have become more common under the current government. Take for example the English-language speech that Justice Minister Viera Petríková was supposed to have delivered at an international conference in Brazil last month, before she took to her bed with cramps (or to the VIP lounge for drinks, according to an indiscreet colleague).
This speech, a marvel of tedium, was only 400 words long, but contained 36 errors in grammar and usage. If the ministry could fork out for business class tickets, a security detail, luxury hotel rooms and bottles of Pepto Bismol, it really ought to have engaged a competent English speaker to vet Petríková’s speech.
Some members of the Fico administration have obviously tried to adapt their language skills to the post-revolution, western orientation of their country. Among them is Economy Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek whose droll English made him a hit on YouTube, or parliamentary foreign affairs committee chairman Boris Zala, who boasted rashly of his familiarity with “skape” internet-based telephony.
People deserve full marks for trying to communicate in a foreign language, especially if they have only recently started to learn it. But on formal occasions there is no excuse for not having English texts proofread. All too often, the English of official Slovak speeches, and of the officials sent abroad to deliver them, has been well-below standard. It comes across as amateurish and hurts Slovakia’s international image.
Part of this phenomenon arises from the fact that many translation agencies do shoddy work. Rather than verifying the results, people seem to believe that an official translator’s seal can transform a teacher of Russian into an expert on English.
But I suspect that the Fico government’s impatience with proper English betrays a deeper discomfort with liberal democracy as a whole. And that above all it speaks of a stiff neck, of a small-town pride that would rather be wrong than ask for help.