I arrived on the scene of my first fully fledged translation emergency to find a professional Polish translator in his sixties, with a snowy-white beard and thick glasses, sobbing into his English-Polish dictionary. In impeccable, Oxford-accented English, he looked up at me with his red-rimmed eyes and summarised his problem in four words: Rex Hunt’s Fishing Adventures.

A mutual contact at the embassy had put me in touch with the poor gentleman, who’d been given the job of translating the show’s script into Polish. I’d heard of the show, of course, but hadn’t actually ever watched it before. So we sat at the computer together and the translator played me a bit, to help me get the idea of what was going on and what the problem was.

It took approximately 45 seconds to see why I’d never watched this show. To take a (paraphrased but not atypical) exchange:

Rex (to mate Bushy): Hey, Bushy, bewdiful fish.
Bushy: Yep, bewdiful fish.
Rex: Yeah. (Pause while they consider the fish’s finer aesthetic qualities). Great fish, eh?
Bushy: Great fish alright, Rexy.
(Both nod in silent appreciation).

I felt the Great Australian Cultural Cringe at the banality of the dialogue and the gratingly ocker accent, and wondered if we really didn’t have anything more worthy of export than this. But I didn’t immediately see the crisis. In fact, I was thinking that, with a word or two for ‘fish’ and two or three variations of ‘pleasing to the eye,’ even I could translate this.

At which point, the translator fast-forwarded to the first phrase he couldn’t make sense of. “That swell’s coming in straight off the Atlantic,” I heard. Except that Rex didn’t say that. He said, “thaswelzcummininstraydoffthlandick,” as though he’d swallowed a tube of novocaine and had lost the use of his tongue. The Strine came into even sharper relief against the translator’s impeccable accent. I think I winced slightly. But nonetheless, I typed the sentence into the computer. I fancied I caught a glimmer of a grateful tear in the eye of my New Translator Friend.

And so the afternoon continued. “Stevo ere, ee’s mor you-zda bein on tayra furhma.” New Translator Friend raised an eyebrow. “Stevo here, he’s more used to being on terra firma“, I typed. “Ah,” he replied. “The use of Latin here was unexpected.” “Quite,” I agreed.

“This dubyay coast is just amaaaaayzin,” Rexy continued. “Like me ole mate Oras Keel once said, west is best!” I didn’t immediately see what Rexy was getting at here. But a Google search turned up the critical factoid that it was one Horace Keeley who made famous the saying, ‘Go west young man’. “I think the term ‘me ole mate” here implies a general familiarity rather than necessarily a personal friendship,’ I said. The translator nodded. “With a degree of paraphrasing,” he added.

There were points where we were both a little stumped. It turned out that knowing what burley is (although not how to spell it) was insufficient, alone, to understand what was meant by the phrase, “drop an unweighted pilchard cube and float a long shank five-zero down the burley trail”.

Over the course of a 10 minute conversation, Really Quite Grateful Translator and I came to a mutual agreement on what probably happened, although were still at a bit of a loss to understand how, exactly, doing so resulted in a fish.

It occurred to me that, had we taped and sent to Rexy & Bushy our intellectualisations over exactly how one might (hypothetically) use the scent from a free floating bait to attract a fish and induce it to take the hook, they may have found it just as incomprehensible as we found them. And probably not less ridiculous. But at least I do now know the Polish term for burley, and just on the off chance I’m ever called on to ‘burley up on the Baltic’ (which, incidentally, would be a great name for a Polish fishing show), at least I’ll know what I’m supposed to do.

We progressed through the rest, like Bushy’s “dubyay reddy” — the snapper (here) having to be inferred from the context, and the WA requiring the restoration of several consonants and two syllables. Over the course of the afternoon, I found myself with a new appreciation of the art of translation. I mean, what do you do with a sentence like, “She’ll be off like a prawn in the sun”? (In this instance: “It will be gone like a snowball on Thredbo mountain”). I nodded, impressed.

And so it went until Rexy, standing on a stretch of sand called Cactus Beach, announced: “If it doesn’t work, well, it’s not boondy boondy, but we’re all cactus on Cactus Beach”. My brow wrinkled a touch. “Cactus” — kaput, broken – was easy enough. “Boondy Boondy” seemed to be some kind of play on words with ‘cactus’ and Cactus Beach. But what? Something about bindis — grass prickles — and cacti? Another beach name? I was stumped. Time for Google again. I typed in Bundi Bundi, Bundy Bundy (a lot about rum) and, finally ‘Boondy Boondy’, which the Australian on-line slang dictionary (yes, there is one) told me is a word for the van that takes prisoners to gaol. With that piece of the jigsaw in hand, we had our interpretation: ‘no one will go to jail, but it won’t be good!’

I found myself thinking that, while this gets across the sense of what was said, so much of how it was said — which essentially makes the show what it is — is completely lost. You’re just left with a show where blokes trade complements about fish. And this, in a country that has no tradition of sea fishing, according to Really Quite Grateful Translator anyway. At that point, I found myself wondering, even with the best translation in the world, is any of this really going to be meaningful in Poland?

But, as Rexo taught me during the course of the day,
‘it’s about the sizzle, not the steak”. Why would a bunch of Poles who’ve probably never even seen a dingy want to watch Rexy and Bushy floating their burley trails and admiring each other’s fish?

Because the show’s about two blokes, who’ve got an esky and a tinny, and who are on an adventure. It’s a simple story, but one with universal appeal. It’s also about freedom, courage, curiosity and above all, being willing to get out there and give it a red hot go. The sorts of things, I realise now, that the world associates with Australia. And I felt a stab of pride at my little part in bringing such a show to the Polish people. Rex even gets a few environmental messages in about caring for fish stocks and behaving responsibly on the ocean. Onya, Rexy.

The next day, my New Translator Friend sent me a thank you note. “Without your help, I would have been lost like a long shank hook five-oh not well knotted with a half hitch,” it read. To which I replied: “No worries, let’s shoot a hook down the burley trail after a dubyay reddy someday.” Which perhaps I would translate — for the benefit of someone like me — as ‘Not at all, I found it both interesting and educational.’

Although something would be lost in that translation.

Jay Martin is a travel writer and editor from Canberra who has somehow ended up in Warsaw, Poland. You can find more of her writings here or check out her past Expat Opinions columns here.

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