Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lost in translation: a comedy of errors

Obama Pictures and McCain Pictures

Disclosure: This photo may be photoshopped... there is great debate regarding it's veracity. But it doesn't matter all that much because it fits my post for today. Yes, *themed* post! And *yay* photo! (So little to look at on my blog! So many words, not enough pictures!!)

Ahem. Anywho...

I use on-line translators. Especially babelfish. I find that it's faster for me to type a sentence into babelfish than it is for me to look up the words I'm not sure about in my dictionary. I am just not that good at the fiddly page turning and the alphabet. (Yes, let's not talk about that shall we?) I highly recommend on-line translations provided that you have a pretty darn good knowledge of the language already and can read MOST of what you are translating without assistance. German translations are often downright hilarious and I've been collecting my favorites for a while now. I plan on someday turning it into poetry, of a sort. There is just something so delightfully Jabberwocky about it. "Siebenbürgen" literally translated means "seven mountains" but really means "Transylvania" and completely overloads babelfish so I get "filter deficiency guarantee." Dude, I don't even *know* what that means.

Also, "Probleme besonderer Art werfen schliesslich die sog." Turns into "Problems of special kind throw finally sucked." Really ought to be "Problems of specially cast forms will be drawn in conclusion." Er, yes, that is an awkward translation - sometimes German just doesn't translate well. As long as I know what it *means*, I just roll with it.

Anyway, I thought French would be slightly different. I don't know why, but maybe it's because I can read French with greater accuracy. But some of the things that the translator throws up are just down right hilarious. "Motif" becomes "motive" even though it is obvious that motif = motif. So my plates have a lot of fish motives. I love it. What do you suppose motivates fish? Worms? I'm pretty sure it's NOT silver plate. "Scène" becomes "place" although it seems pretty obvious to me that scène means scene in this context. So I have a lot of "places of fish motives."

Then there is the truly bizarre. At the end of a very long sentence that was describing places of fish motives (heh) in nature death (still-life) on a mosaic floor in Africa, suddenly, this appeared: "there is no mosaic." Whut? I felt like I was in some sort of Matrix-blooper reel. Delving into my dictionary I figured it out. "Pas" can be part of a negation, you know ne...pas, but it can also mean "threshold." "Pas mosaic" does not mean "there is no mosaic" but "threshold mosaic." Heh.

But funny translations and incorrect English is not limited to babelfish. (Yes, I already know about and failblog, they kill me.) My husband, whose English is normally stellar, can sometimes throw out the most hilarious things when he gets tired. Yesterday, it seems, we were both "sleep depraved." And then a few nights ago (must be that sleep depravity), while we were discussing how funny it was that we know exactly when we first met and how at that time we had no idea that we'd be married five years later, he says "yes, I didn't know at that time that you would be the wife of my life." You know, versus all those other wives he had that didn't last. We were rolling around with laughter.

Yeah, you say, but you shouldn't make fun, I bet your Danish isn't so hot!

Uh, duh, no kidding. My personal best was when, while on excavation with a bunch of very messy Danes, I made some signs - VERY LARGE SIGNS - to post around the kitchen areas. I wanted to write, "your mother doesn't live here" (i.e. clean up after yourself) and wrote "Din mor ikke bor here!" This caused great hilarity among the Danes. It's "din mor bor ikke here" in case you were wondering. You probably weren't, but feel I must educate you. Also, "your mother doesn't live here" is not a particularly Danish saying, or so I was told. I've since seen it in kitchens, with the "ikke" in the right place, so obviously I'm not singlehandedly bringing English idioms to Denmark.

My husband has picked up quite a few Americanisms that he quite likes and uses with abandon. He really likes "it doesn't ring a bell." I don't know why, but that seems to be his favorite. So much so that he often forgets and says it to Danes in DANISH. "Der ikke ringe klokken" or something. There is always this long pause while the person he just said it to tries to figure out what bells have to do with whatever it was that they were talking about.

To finish off this post - which is shockingly thematic, way to go AG! - I must tell you a story that brings us back, full circle, to the photo at the beginning. One of the Americans on the excavation in Israel is from Chicago and thus has a distinct accent. One day, while sitting on the porch of our dig house, he was sipping his drink and then suddenly exclaimed: "Ugh, this juice! I *hate* pulp in my juice!" One of the other archaeologists, who is from Poland, whipped his head around and said "WHAT?! You hate the Pope and the Jews?!" It's been two years and we are STILL laughing about it.


  1. Anonymous3:24 PM

    What chuckles me the most is when the Danes asked me "Are you fresh?" minutes before an exam started. They should learn (as much as we should) that one shouldn't directly translate from the other language. The modified "er du frisk" question in English made me feel like as I was a piece of fish

  2. I've heard "don't be fresh" in the States - "fresh" being a smart-ass, so I often giggle, just a bit, inside, when I get asked that.

    I am also often asked by my in-laws if I am "fit for fight" which is a British saying, asking if you are "good to go" (the American version), that completely mystified me until I was able to ask some New Zealanders about it. (They were the closest thing I had to a Brit at the time.) They, in return, say "donkey's years" which confused the heck out of the Danes until I explained it means "a really long time." I'm not entirely sure how I knew that one.

  3. I am working on a blog of all those little phrases.... and just when I think I am ready to post it, I find out a new one! It is never ending!!!

    but I must admit that photo CRACKED ME UP!

  4. For some reason, I can't see the photo...I feel robbed.

    You should know that Jamie and I have been laughing hysterically about "You hate the Pope and the Jews." for some minutes now...thanks for the good laugh.

  5. When I first started using internet translators, I liked to type in an English sentence, translate it to another language, then copy and paste it to translate it back to English ---the results are often hilarious, but it often points out the flaws in the translation.
    Example. I wrote: "Dear Carlos, I enjoyed our lunch meeting at the delicatessen the other day. I hope we can meet more often in the future. Sincerely yours, CJ" (I translated it to Portuguese because it is the only language I speak besides English.) When I translated it back to English, I got: "Costly Carlos, I enjoyed our meeting of lunch in the delicatessen the another day. I expect that we be able to find more frequently in the future. Sincerely its, CJ"


Keep it clean, don't be mean....