Wednesday, 20 August 2014


Although Bhutan is a small country, its virtual inaccessibility not just to the outside world but even within during the ancient days was all too obvious from diverse language, culture and tradition we see today. Virtually, every region and valleys that are separated from each other have something different culturally which continues to thrive even to this day.

Among these diversity is the language we have inherited now. Despite our small size, there are at least a dozen dialects and there are even variations among the same language spoken in different valleys. Like Dzongkha’s variations among Dzongkha speaking people of the different western Bhutan, there are variations in Tshangla among the Tshangla speaking people of the east and so is the case with those speaking Bumthangkha and Khengkhas in the central region.

But, as long as languages serve its purpose of communication, the basic objective of language is achieved.  But sometimes we find ourselves lost in translation when we try to speak a language that is not our mother tongue. At times it can find the speaker in a precarious situation leading to sudden blurting out of inappropriate words, phrases and sentences.

Here are some examples of how, while trying to communicate with languages people don’t have command over, some people landed themselves in awkward situations and hilarious of course. It was not long ago when the government made it mandatory for official discussions at all levels including those at the grass roots to be made in the national language Dzongkha. This has been in one way a good opportunity for the non-Dzongkha speaking people to develop command and proficiency of the national language. But, for a non-Dzongkha speaking local leaders, making points through also becomes difficult and often end up blurting out a cocktail of Dzongkhag and the local dialect that virtually bring about laughter and light heartedness even in some serious forums.

In one of the local dzongkhag level decision making body, a Gup (head of a gewog or block) was reprimanded for not making desirable progress in a bridge construction work. The leader stood up to explain his position, and this is how he ended up saying, “Zaam chap da lu lakha du. Dang pa rang ‘paer’ gobay, deley do gobay, deley ‘baetza’ gobay,”  evoking open laughter among those in attendance and the leader was left red-faced.

What he meant to say was, to explain how difficult it is to make progress in building the bridge and that, first materials like iron, stone and sand had to be stock-piled. What he did not realize was the fact that he ended up using Tshangla version for iron and sand (paer and baetza instead of cha and bjem) that the house found it hilarious. This statement makes round even now and it never ceases to evoke laughter even today.

In another incident, a man from western Bhutan came to do orange business in the east. The man understood little tshangla language but was adventurous and likes to take assumptions. One day, that assumption just became little costly for him. He went into an orchard and after inspecting the fruit asked the owner the cost. The man took a translator with him. After much mulling, the owner said that he is expecting about thirteen thousand Ngultrums. In Tshangla thirteen is spoken as ‘Song Sam’. Without waiting for translation, the business man jumped in and told the owner, “Song sam malap wai, Sumchu jeeng gay.” He virtually ended up saying, “thirteen thousand is too high; I will give you thirty thousand.” The perplexed orchard owner couldn’t believe his luck. He pretended to accept the offer with some reluctance only. Both the parties were pleased but, left the translator mute and perplexed.

It was in 2008, Bhutan was gearing up for its first parliamentary elections. There was tremendous effort on the part of the election commission to educate voters all over the country through the newly appointed electoral officers. In one such meeting, an official from central Bhutan, though not a native Tshangla speaker happens to know the language to some extent and had the confidence on his ability to convey the message. Towards the end, he told repeatedly, “It doesn’t matter who comes to you with verbal promises, use your ‘Joktang’ and vote accordingly.” What he meant to say was; tell people to use their brain which is called ‘Nyoktang’ in Tshangla but ended up telling people to use ‘Joktang’ which actually means potato. He said he felt embarrassed even while shouting to use their joktang repeatedly when people giggled. He only realized later, why.

Here is an incident where a Bhutanese businessman went to attend an auction in the bordering town. The auction was mostly attended by Indian businessmen and so the auction had to be conducted in Hindi. Once the auction began, the bidders quoted their bid offer in Hindi at the top of their voice. After few rounds of quotation, the Bhutanese man reached a point where he did not know any further count in Hindi. So he intermittently shouted, “Sabse Upaar, Saabse Upaar.” As soon as one man quoted the highest bid, the auctioneer began counting Ek…, Do…., the man kept shouting, ‘Sabse Upaar, Sabse Upaar’. He was trying to bid above the last highest bidder, so he shouted ‘Sabse Upaar’, much to the bewilderment of all in attendance. At the end of the day, he ended up with nothing except that people took him as being mentally unsound and, those who knew him began calling him ‘Sabse Upaar’.

Even author Linda Leaming in her book, ‘Married to Bhutan’ wrote how one day while shopping for a khaddar in a shop bumped into a senior Bhutanese officer and tried using her newly acquired proficiency in Dzongkha by attempting to converse in Dzongkha. She tried to say, “I hope you are also coming to a minister’s reception but, ended up saying “Gho phue bey ma nye” literally telling the officer to remove his clothes and lie down. Embarrassed, the officer made a hasty retreat from the shop. She realized her mistake only after the officer left much to the bewilderment of the shopkeeper.

There is even a recent post in the social media which said that the Korean Prime Minister who was preparing to meet US president having been briefed to greet the president in English. The aide told the prime minister that he should greet the president with, “How are you?” and when the question was asked back by the president, he should reply with, ‘‘Me too.”
When they met this happened: Prime Minister began by asking, “Who are you?”
The president who was taken aback little surprised said, “I am of course husband of Michele Obama.”
The Korean Prime Minister ended up saying, “Me too.”

Like these, there are many other incidences of how such goofs occur when we say unfamiliar words and sentences of languages we don’t have command over at wrong time and place. They are at times not just inappropriate but costly sometimes and often hilarious. Well, despite the awkward situation faced at the time of its occurrence, they make us smile and laugh in posterity when we re-live those situations.

 In passing, I would like to state here that these incidences while true are not meant to offend anyone. Forgive me if they do. Meanwhile wish you a happy reading and keep well until we meet next time here.

Gyembo Namgyal
August 21, 2014.


  1. Gyembo sir, really interesting incidences. There are a lot of such incidences, very true.

  2. Mother tongue should not be the barriers...As long as it surve its purpose its fine with any of the medium...nice incidences sir geee...

  3. Funny-These beautiful funny story helped cheering me up, made me laugh, and happy.

    1. thank you dawa, it was good feeling to know it cheered you up.keep yourself cheerful always.

  4. Good one at a time when things tend to become too serious

    1. thank you needrup sir, for finding time to read and comment. i will always value them!!!

  5. Sir, the article is really a healing tonic. Through your write ups i read not only Bhutan Observer but also a philosopher.

  6. santosh chowdhury sir, thank you for your kind words. i am glad you enjoyed reading it.