I am currently embroiled in translating a book written by two Dutch blokes about setting up a B&B in Italy. It’s a collection of tongue in cheek stories about the Italians’ eccentricities and the poor Dutch men’s daily struggles to survive in the sunny Mediterranean. The stories are littered with Dutch idioms, colloquialisms and expressions (sorry, those all mean the same thing, I am just showing off). Normally I relish this kind of stuff because I really like the Dutch turns of phrase, I think mainly because it’s very close to the Hungarian way of thinking even though the languages are unrelated. For example, when we have enough of something, we say “that was the last drop!” just like the Dutch, whilst the English typically come out with their own special thing, in this case ‘straws’ for some inexplicable reason.
Anyway, I am sitting there translating this story about public toilets in Italy. Not my topic of choice, but as a translator, you need to do these things in the name of service. It starts off easy-going and quite interesting. I find out that if you go to the toilet in Italy, instead of pictures, you will be confronted with written signs on the doors: one for ‘Signori’ and one for ‘Signore’. To the average not-Italian speaking tourist who really needs the loo, this is quite a cruel joke. Apparently, if you are a lady choose the one ending in ‘-e’ because this is the sign for a feminine noun in plural. I am a lady, so for me, that’s enough to know. I carry on translating until I come to a sentence that reads:
“Zelfs op fonkelnieuwe toiletten in glanzende gebouwen kan het je gebeuren dat je opeens ‘met je kloten voor het blok’ komt te zitten: een toiletdeur met een Lipsslot… zonder sleutel.”
For those of you who don’t speak Dutch, here is the literal English translation
“Even in the brand new toilets of shiny buildings, it can overcome you that you find yourself ‘standing with your balls in front of the block’: a toilet door with a lever lock… but without a key.”
Well before I go on, you need to know that I think in pictures. I often thought that this slightly autistic trait gives me an edge as a translator because it helps me take distance from the actual words that have been spoken and instead translate the ‘vision’ that comes to my mind. The vision this time, was not a good one. I know enough Dutch to know that ‘kloten’ refers to men’s private parts and it’s a common swear word. My gentle, innocent, middle-aged mummy soul was affronted by this dirty talk about dirty men standing with their balls out in dirty toilets without a lock on. It was time for a break. One that didn’t involve toilets or food!
When I was ready to face my desk again, I decided that my professionalism dictated that I got to the bottom of this. I can see the faces of my (young) teenage daughters lighting up with unbridled merriment at the possible implications of what I had just said. In our house, the mention of ‘peanuts’ at the dinner table is enough to reduce half of our family into hysterically convulsing human wrecks, let alone mentioning balls or God forbid bottoms. I took a deep breath and typed ‘met je kloten voor het blok staan’ into Google, bracing myself for the possible variety of search results (let alone images).
As it happens, I needn’t have worried. Apparently it’s a maritime expression that has got all to do with pulling up the mainsail on a sailing boat. Sailors have a lot to answer for! Without going into technicalities, the rope that holds the mainsail to the mast is equipped with balls, which the sailors very fittingly call ‘kloten’. When you pull up the sail; the sail-rope is pulled through a pulley-block. As the rope travels upwards, the balls travel with it. When the ‘kloten’ hit the block, the mast cannot be pulled up any further. In other words: when your ‘balls hit the block’ you are stuck. Here are some illustrations:
Vintage Dutch sailing boat. Spot the ‘kloten’!
These are the original ‘kloten’ of the famous Dutch Batavia from up close.
This is what a pulley block looks like. This was news to me. I thought it was some sort of a plank!
Hopefully, now you are in the picture. You may wonder what my final translation became. Well, an hour of research and another hour of blogging later, I came up with this:
“Even in the brand new toilets of shiny new buildings you can find yourself stuck: a toilet door with a lever lock… without a key.”
One single word ‘stuck’ to replace a glorious traditional Dutch saying. If the English (native! – insider joke…) speakers have any other suggestions that are on a par with the Dutch original (mild toilet humour allowed), then feel free to contribute!
The Footloose Translator
UPDATE: I got in touch with the author who confirmed my suspicion that a Lipsslot is a traditional lock with a key. He says these can still be found in Italian toilets. On the basis of this information, and incorporating your comments, here is the new version of the translation:
“Even in the brand new toilets of shiny new buildings you can find yourself ‘up the creek without a paddle’: faced with a toilet door fitted with a traditional lock… without the key.”