Cheque mates | Marcel Strigberger

By Marcel Strigberger

Law360 Canada (February 24, 2023, 1:23 PM EST) --
Marcel Strigberger
Marcel Strigberger
Isn’t it a small world after all?

Toronto, where I practised, is one of the world’s most multicultural cities. I had an eclectic mix of clients and as a result, to my joy and theirs, I often picked up words in their languages.

I concluded that there really is not that much difference in the languages. After all, English does stem from several languages, some ancient.

For example, I once interviewed a Greek lady who slipped and fell. Her English was poor, and her son George translated. Soon I started understanding Greek.  I asked the mother how she slipped. She went on at length, waving one hand up and around and ending with the words, “Just like that.”

George translated, the graphic details of the event concluding that down she went, “just like that.”

Somehow, I was able to figure this last phrase out. I was proud of myself.

I asked the lady about injuries, and she pointed to her back, speaking unintelligible Greek words. With diligent listening however I was able to understand one phrase she uttered: “A big backache, that’s it.”

I looked at her son, and he translated that she suffered a big backache. I told him that I understood that last phrase as it sounded amazingly similar to English.

George noted that much of the English language originates from Greek. We both agreed that indeed with a bit of desire, anybody speaking English could pick up Greek in no time. 

To ensure that I would learn as much Greek as I could, I decided to write all these newly learnt words into a journal. I noted, “Just like that.” and “a big backache, that's it,” into my journal.

A while later I settled an accident claim for an elderly Punjabi gentleman. He did not speak one word of English and he was accompanied by his grandson/translator, Jagdeep.

I told Jagdeep I would be in touch when funds arrive. Unfortunately, delivery of funds was delayed and soon I received a phone call from my client himself. He uttered his name and in Punjabi he said a few words ending with the word, “Cheque?”

I was at a loss as my knowledge of Punjabi failed me.  Actually, I do not speak a word of Punjabi.

But where there is a will there is a way. I listened carefully as he supplemented his previous discourse ending with the words: “Cheque come?”

I had a vague idea what he was trying to say but to ensure I fully understood him, I queried, “Jagdeep home?”

My diligent attempt at understanding Punjabi worked. A minute later Jagdeep took the line. I told him about my comprehension predicament, and he conferred with my client and translated, “Is the cheque here yet?”

Uh huh! That’s exactly what I suspected he was saying. I told Jagdeep that there was definitely some similarity between English and Punjabi. He agreed that perhaps the lengthy British presence in India may have forged this similarity. Who knows?

I took out my journal and penned in the words, “In Punjabi, ‘cheque come yet’ means, ‘Is the cheque here yet.’”

I proudly felt I could soon switch careers and get a job with Duolingo. Who knows?

Pretty soon I found no language whatsoever a barrier to my communicating with clients. 

I had a Mandarin-speaking client who was not too successful in a real estate litigation case and not too happy with my account. A cousin Kevin acted as translator. When I suggested to them what I thought was a reasonable adjustment for my bill, they conferred and the client rattled off his response in Mandarin, ending with the words, “No way.”

I got an inkling of his position. Maybe I picked up on the intonation. I looked at Kevin, saying “Translation please.” He told me my offer was not acceptable. Bingo! I had now learned a phrase in Mandarin as well.NI opened my journal and jotted down my newly learnt phrase in Mandarin. “No way” means “Not acceptable.”

Actually, Kevin added of his own accord the words, “Full stop.” I did not enter this phrase in my journal as “full stop” of course isn’t Mandarin.

Fortunately, we did resolve my account and the client agreed to send me funds next week. 

I soon learnt yet another Mandarin phrase. After four weeks rolled by without seeing his payment, I called the client. The gentleman uttered a few words in Mandarin ending with the words, “Cheque in mail.”

Unfortunately, there was nobody around to translate that one for me. I bit my pencil as I was about to make a journal entry. Could it mean what I thought it meant?  As another two weeks rolled by uneventfully, I could only presume that indeed he was telling me that the cheque was in the mail. This presumption was bolstered by the fact that I noticed a bit of a similarity between this comment and that of the Punjabi gentleman.

The word “cheque” has similar connotations in both Mandarin and Punjabi. It was best characterized as an item the delivery of which is often delayed.

I spoke to Kevin, who confirmed that very translation.

Isn't it amazing that there are even some common links between Mandarin and Punjabi? To think it all started with the Tower of Babel. As the scripture reads in Genesis, chapter 1, verse 9, “That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

Incredible! Aren’t we all from a common origin? And with a bit of effort, we can readily communicate and understand one another. Isn’t it a small world after all?

Marcel Strigberger retired from his Greater Toronto Area litigation practice and continues the more serious business of humorous author and speaker. His book Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging is now available in paper and e-book versions where books are sold. Visit Follow him @MarcelsHumour.

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