For a very long time I was blissfully unaware of the shortcomings of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. That’s the beauty of translations; sometimes you lose, but sometimes you gain. I was seven when I read my first “proper” book, i.e. one with no pictures in and lots of text. It was Five on a Treasure Island, in translation, and it took me a week. I speeded up slightly after that.
It was only when coming to live in England as an adult that I cottoned on to how “awful” the Five really are. They eat all the time (they did in translation, too) and they look down on the working classes. This didn’t translate, so went un-noticed.
I was reminded of Blyton when Marcel Berlins wrote in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago about learning English from Blyton’s books when he arrived in England as a child. And Lee on lowebrow blogged this week on bilingualism, which made me nod in recognition.
I had moved on from the Famous Five by the time I had an interest in improving my English. At thirteen I had discovered Agatha Christie. When the library ran out of translations, I started on Christies in the original to get more books.
At first I only understood about half the words, but I’ve always been lazy, so couldn’t be bothered finding a dictionary. I could always work out who did it, and there were always lots of retired colonels and things. I remember when the penny dropped and I made the connection between the printed “extraordinary” and that word from television “strodnri”. They were the same!
After Christie I started on Alistair MacLean, and used to stand in the corridors between lessons at school reading. The teachers shook their heads at this girl who not only read, but chose a foreign language to do it in.
The Christie stood me in good stead when I ended up in Brighton, staying with a family, while doing a course at Sussex University. England greeted me with what it used to do best; strikes. The rationed electricity caused havoc in my host family, who needed to entertain their ten-year-old when there was no television.
Games came out, and I wasn’t too good at Scrabble to start with. I remember golf crazy Mr G’s happiness over his seven letter word, that he felt the need to explain to his foreign lodger. It’s a real word, honestly. I knew that. Thanks to dear Agatha I’d known about niblicks for a long time. Good to murder people with. And handy in Scrabble.
However, the man who called at the G’s house on the first day when I was alone, was selling manure. I declined his kind offer, and then spent a while looking through my dictionary to work out what I’d refused. Years later I lived in Brighton, again, with the Resident IT Consultant, when someone from the gas company came to the door, going on about someone with egg on their face…
Honestly. Christie never covered that.