Lost In Translation

Photo by  Dylan Gillis  on  Unsplash



I have never experienced anything like it before or since. It was surreal in its essence in all honesty, but looking back at it, hilarious, too.

I’d been teaching a sixty-year-old woman for at least a year. Mariana, as I shall call her (though that was not her real name), was an artist and owner of a Polish pharmaceutical distribution company based in Warsaw, and the wife of one of Poland’s most illustrious artists. We met three times a week, during her lunchtime. I’d been hired by my school to improve her grammar, vocabulary range and pronunciation. I’d heard she was a demanding woman, a person totally focused on her business venture and self-development.

I was nervous before our first lesson.

All the fear, however, was unfounded — Mariana was a lovely lady if a little eccentric.

And so, we commenced our professional relationship. Mariana was a very easy lady to teach. My lesson plan was simple: We’d spend half an hour on an aspect of grammar, say the Present Perfect, going over the finer points of the tense before moving on to some gap-fill exercises. After that we’d go through the article I’d given her in the previous lesson. Texts were taken from The EconomistNewsweekTime and from the British broadsheet newspapers, though rarely from these publications as I’d have to cut them out beforehand — too much unnecessary work for an English teacher who was working close to fifty hours per week at the time.


Sometimes — and this had been agreed earlier between the school and the student — Mariana’s daughter, also an artist — who I shall call Anna here — would join her mother for lessons. On those days, we would have conversational lessons where we’d talk about life, art and culture in general. As two fine artists by education, politics was a topic they rarely wanted to talk about.

It was clear to me that mother and daughter did not get on. I sensed it from the first lesson they had together. I felt there was competition between the two, especially when it came to the affections of the patriarch of the family. Mother was always criticizing daughter’s painting and her mothering skills (she had two young children) while daughter constantly highlighted her mother’s emotional inadequacies and rough treatment of her employees in the company.

It made for spectacular fireworks.

One day, I entered her office and she seemed upset.

“Is everything okay, Mrs. Mariana?” I asked as I sat down.

“No, not really,” she answered — Poles, unlike the British and Americans, are more apt to tell the truth when they know a person a little rather than hide it behind a false smile and an empty phrase: ‘Yes, I’m fine’.

I wasn’t a psychologist. I was embarrassed but felt somewhat responsible for her mental wellbeing for the next hour as she was in my charge.

“Do you want to get straight down to the lesson or talk for a while?” I asked.

“A drink, I forgot,” Mariana then said, rising. “Do you want a coffee, James?”

“Yes,” I answered.

She went out to the receptionist outside and asked her to make me a coffee. A few minutes later, Mariana came back in with a bounce to her step:

“Let’s start!”

The receptionist placed my coffee on the desk. I then took out my worksheets and photocopies from my bag to begin the lesson.

“Did you do the preposition homework I gave you?” I said.

“I forgot it, sorry,” she replied with a smile.

It happened a lot with my students — they were busy people with a million things racing through their minds: I always had a contingency plan:

“Here you are, take this.”

I gave her a handout of the basic prepositions of place: ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘at’.

Haven’t we done this already?” she asked.

“It’s revision,” I answered.

Students — at least mine — have always loved the word ‘revision’, probably because it expresses clearly in their minds the idea that learning is taking place, that the lessons are value for money and they’re getting something out of them.


We knuckled down to work. About twenty minutes into the lesson, however, Anna came through the door.

“I don’t want to hear it, Anna,” Mariana said in Polish to her daughter.

“I’ve come to say sorry,” said Anna.

They made up — temporarily.

“Do you want to join us, Anna?” I then asked.

“Can I?” she asked her mother.

Usually, she didn’t need an invitation, she’d just sit down and join in the conversation, but there was tension in the air — she needed to be asked.

“Please, sit,” Mariana said in English.

My role as a language teacher in a conversational class is simple: to correct any grammatical and pronunciation errors when they occur as well as to keep the topic from straying. Too many English tutors think a conversational lesson is an easy way to earn money. Nothing could be further from the truth. You have to stay focused. Keep everything relevant and make sure the student(s) knows why they are doing it.

Unfortunately, the inevitable happened whenever mother and daughter were in the same class — the discussion would take on a haphazard angle, everything and nothing would be discussed. I realized I had to accept this and just got on with it. I was paid to correct them, perfect their English language as best I could and that was that.

We were talking about something or other when mother laughed at something daughter had said. They started arguing, changing to the Polish language. This went on for about two minutes. I felt embarrassed. I had to say something:

Do you want me to leave, ladies?” I asked.

They both looked at me, then to each other, then back to me once more.

“No, James, I do not,” Mariana said. “If we change into English, can you listen to us, correct us?”

“I don’t understand,” I answered.

Do you think it’s a good idea, Anna?” Mariana asked her daughter. They conversed in Polish for a moment.

“Yes,” Anna said.

They wanted me to listen, correct and comment on their mistakes as they argued in English.

“Do you agree, James?” Mariana asked me.

“Well… eh… I don’t know… what… to… say really…”


“Don’t say nothing,” Mariana said.

“Don’t say ‘anything’,” I said, correcting the double negative automatically.

“You see, just like that.”

Mother and daughter started their rant at each other. It was personal, so much so that I didn’t feel comfortable being privy to a family’s personal history: Childhood was brought up. Drinking. The selfishness of mother to daughter. That Anna was a spoiled child who had always got what she wanted. And there I was, like Bill Clinton at the Wye River Memorandum, trying to calm the waters between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat.

“…And what about you, mother,” Anna began, “remember, that time you didn’t gave me the money with the holiday in-”

“Remember that time you ‘didn’t give’, you ‘didn’t give’, Past Simple, and ‘money for’, ‘money for’ the holiday,” I interrupted, correcting her grammatical mistakes.

It was like something out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the Twilight Zone.Still today, I have to pinch myself sometimes that it took place. But then again, I wasn’t surprised, either — two abstract painters both a brick short of a full load with too much money to spend on such extraneous activities as English lessons.

And so it goes — the life of an English teacher!