Lost in translation

Host: Dampier Downs Station
Written by Anne Marie Huey – Station Manager, Dampier Downs.

Communication is key on a cattle station. In this job, things can – and do – change in an instant. It is easy to forget that everyday terms for us are a baffling journey into the unintelligible for those not used to the cattle industry. This is particularly true when working with people for whom English is a second, or even third, language.

Below are a few snippets of conversations that have had us shaking our heads. Whether it is due to accents, the use of slang or just inter-generational and cultural differences, the art of communication is a constant work in progress.

“I know first aid”

Earlier this year we had a frightening – and potentially deadly – near miss. The job was to pull the pump out of a bore for repair. The pump is attached to a length of poly pipe, electrical cable, and steel cable. This is generally a pretty straight-forward task and on this particular day we had an experienced member of staff with a brand new employee. Our experienced person had turned away to explain some of the finer points of what they were doing, went to grab the next section of pipe when a rather irate brown snake emerged from the depths of the bore.

Needless to say, this created a fair bit of excitement in the day. Hearing about this afterward I decided it was imperative to make sure all staff are aware of what to do in such an emergency.

The next morning, before work commenced I lined everyone up to have a safety talk. One particularly conscientious employee was quick to co-operate.

Me: “Does anyone know what to do in case of a snake bite?”

Employee 1: “Yes.”

Me: “Great – what?”

Employee 1: “Take a photo.”

Now, I know we live in the age of Instagram, but this is definitely not what to do in case of snake bite. After we discussed the pitfalls of documenting a co-worker’s potential last moments for posterity, we determined her intention had been to photograph the snake in order to aid in identification and therefore treatment once the victim reached medical care. Mildly better, but still not what to do in case of snake bite.

Although not venomous, this black-headed python managed to make a meal out of this unfortunate goanna. Video credit: Jim Norton

“I’m allergic to weed”

When new staff arrive, there a few things I need to know for safety reasons. One of them is if anyone has any allergies. As we are a long way from medical help the RFDS is the first port of call in any emergency. As consultations are often done over the phone, the doctors always ask if the patient has any allergies or is taking any kind of medication.

In addition to this, we have a strict zero-tolerance policy when it comes to illicit drugs. This is made very clear to all prospective staff long before they arrive on the station. Early one season we had a promising young recruit and, as it was his first night, we were having a friendly chat and getting to know each other a little better.

I duly asked about allergies and you can imagine the stunned silence when he replied with,

“Yes, I am slightly allergic to weed.”

I’m pretty sure you could have heard a pin drop as we all looked at each other, mentally weighing up who was going to draw the short straw and drive him back to town.

He then followed up with,

“It is not really a problem, only if I eat too much pasta or bread.”

Then the penny dropped – what he had actually said was that he was “slightly allergic to wheat”.

I think we all let out a collective sigh of relief, which was fortunate as that young man turned out to be a very handy employee.

What’s in a name?

At the moment I have three poddy calves I am bottle feeding. All three lost their mothers and so are now being hand-raised. We get a few of these each year and it is harder and harder to find them unique names. This is something I have begun out-sourcing to staff. Usually, whoever ends up with a calf on their lap for the drive in to the homestead gets the honour of choosing a name. However, our most recent arrival was brought in by Mike late one night.

We had three staff members at the time, two of whom had already named a calf. We thought it only fair to let our third employee name this one. The conversation went as follows.

Mike: “It must be your turn to name one. Call it something German.”

Employee:  *Long pause while deep in thought* “I will call him Kartoffel”

Me: “Great, what does that mean?”

Employee: “Potato”

I’m not entirely sure how the logic flowed in this decision, but Kartoffel it is. Or Mr Potato Head to the more linguistically challenged among us.

Kartoffel being expertly photo-bombed by Rusty.

Please explain

Of course, it is not just foreigners who have a unique take on language. Every week I am reminded of how easily things can be misinterpreted and the need to make sure every instruction is clearly communicated.

For example, last year I was moving some cattle in the yard with the help of a backpacker. The cattle had only been recently mustered and there were a few big bulls in the mob. I picked out the ones most likely to give trouble and pointed them out to the employee.

“Watch that bull over there, he’s a bit touchy.” I said, believing I was being perfectly clear.

What I meant was, the bull was already under a lot of pressure just from being in the yard, and too many wrong moves and not enough space from us could result in him becoming aggressive and potentially dangerous (i.e. touchy). What she thought I meant – he likes to be patted.

Fortunately, I could see by the look on her face that she had misunderstood me and was able to clarify the situation before anything went horribly wrong.

The lesson learned from employing people from a range of backgrounds is how important it is to keep communication lines as clear and simple as possible. While I am sure there will be the odd crossed wire in the future, as long as everyone is talking to each other at the end of the day then things haven’t gone too badly.