I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Chinglish, Japlish, Frenlish, and Spanglish are just a few of the hybrid languages that produce words that mean something entirely different from what was intended. The humourist and musician Gerard Hoffnung noted this when he wrote about a letter purportedly coming from an Austrian hotelier exalting the amenities of his inn: “Standing among savage scenery the hotel offers stupendous revelations. There is a French widow in every bedroom, affording delightful prospects.”
Oh Perfidious English
Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion lamented that the English could not even speak their own language properly; how much more difficult then for those of a foreign tongue?
There are reasons why people stumble into so many traps when translating their native languages into English. Spelling in English offers a maze of confusion; for each rule there are exceptions―“i” before “e” except after “c.” So what’s with weight, their, and weird?
And, where did “phlegm,” “rhubarb,” and “asthma” come from?
How do you explain “colonel” and “kernel” and other homonyms of which it’s been said they are a “reel waist of thyme.”
English is full of words that are spelled the same but mean different things―“Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.”
Also, there’s the totally confusing pronunciation of words as shown in a poem written by Helen Boyer in 1966:
Bear and dear
Share, I fear
The pointless deceptiveness
Of there and here.
Some and home
Tomb and comb,
Sin against the tongue
Like from and whom.
Howl and bowl
Foul and soul,
Mislead the ear
Like doll and toll.
No wonder translating into English leads to wobbly syntax, bizarre spelling, and iffy word choice. It leads to chuckles as well.
Chinglish for the Traveller
China has become ground zero for strange translations of English.
In Shanghai, New York Times correspondent Andrew Jacobs reports that “At banks, there are machines for ‘cash withdrawing’ and ‘cash recycling.’ The menus of local restaurants might present such delectables as ‘fried enema,’ ‘monolithic tree mushroom stem squid’ and a mysterious thirst-quencher known as ‘The Jew’s Ear Juice.’ ”
Charlie Crocker in The Telegraph quotes from an Air China brochure: “Dear Passenger, Wish you have a joyful journey! When you are in public talking and laughing and drinking and singing living a happy life, suddenly you feel some part of your body is too itchy to endure. How embarrassed! Please dial fax 01-491-0253, you will gain an unexpected result.” Puzzling.
And, the BBC gives us a few more to untangle. “A road sign on Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace warns of a dangerous pavement with the words: ‘To Take Notice of Safe; The Slippery are Very Crafty.’
“Menus frequently list items such as ‘Corrugated iron beef,’ ‘Government abuse chicken,’ and ‘Chop the strange fish.’ ”
Lost in Translation
It’s not just the Chinese who have trouble translating into English.
There are collections of mistranslations all over the Internet:
- “Gentlemen’s throats cut with nice sharp razors.” Tanzanian barbershop
- “Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.” Swiss restaurant
- “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.” Japanese hotel
- “Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.” Norwegian cocktail lounge
- “Introducing wide boiled aircraft for your comfort.” Russian airline
- “Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists.” Hong Kong dentist
- “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.” Roman dry cleaner
Steven Seymour presented himself to the White House as a fluent speaker of Polish, so when Jimmy Carter visited that country in 1977 Steven tagged along as translator. Unfortunately, his Polish-speaking skill was more theoretical that actual.
Embarrassment followed as recorded by Time: “Carter said he wanted to learn about the Polish people’s desires for the future; Seymour said that Carter desired the Poles ... Carter talked about leaving the U.S. to go on a trip; Seymour said that he had abandoned America forever.”
In a prescient mistranslation Seymour gave the world a heads up about what was to come from a future president: “Carter said he was happy to be in Poland; Seymour said he was happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts.”
The Gaffe that Wasn’t
In June 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at the town hall of West Berlin. To express his support for the citizens of the divided city he said “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Some reputable news organizations such as Newsweek and The New York Times jumped all over the phrase, pointing out that a Berliner is a jelly doughnut. The “I am a jelly doughnut” story is still trotted out at cocktail parties, but it’s wrong.
Here’s The Atlantic (September 2013), “Kennedy was correct. To state Ich bin Berliner would have suggested being born in Berlin, whereas adding the word ein implied being a Berliner in spirit. His audience understood that he meant to show his solidarity.”
A Word from the Other Side
It’s easy to poke fun at people who have trouble translating into English: it’s time to fess up.
My wife and I went on a touring on holiday in Spain in 1975, confident that my theoretical mastery of the Spanish language would be useful.
After two weeks we encountered an English-speaking receptionist in Cordoba who explained that my enquiry “¿Habla una habitación para dos personas?” translated to “Speak you a room …” Not exactly an outrageous goof.
There was an earlier foul up. My impeccable Spanish had confused “Hotel” with “Hostal.” Spain classified hotels as five stars down to one star. Below that came hostals at five down to one. The three-star hostal “con baño” we discovered near Zaragoza seemed quite a bargain at five dollars, or thereabouts, a night. But the baño, instead of being en suite, was down a long corridor. I was awakened from my sangria-fuelled siesta by my wife’s screams. I rushed to the baño to find therein a cockroach about the size of a small cat and my terrified bride.
Gallantly, I stomped on the beast forgetting I was bare footed. Yuck.
That night a thunderstorm passed through and we discovered that three-star hostals do not have leak-proof roofs.
On another occasion, I translated the ingredients of a meal we had eaten in a restaurant and discovered one to be wood lice. I do so hope I was wrong about that.
- In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli was mapping Mars. He labelled some features “canali,” Italian for channels. Unfortunately, the American astronomer Percival Lowell mistook this for canals, which he mapped by the hundreds between 1894 and 1895. He went on to publish three books extolling the expertise of Martian engineers that he said had built a network of water-carrying structures.
- For decades computer wizards have been trying to develop real time language translators. Anybody using Google Translate knows there’s a way to go yet. The story is that an early attempt to translate the phrase “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” into Russian and then back into English yielded “The vodka is good but the meat is rotten.” The yarn has been told so often that its origin is impossible to trace or verify.
- “Eye Rhymes.” Helen Bowyer, The English Spelling Society, undated.
- “Shanghai Is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish.” Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times, May 2, 2010.
- “It’s the Way they Tell them.” Charlie Crocker, The Telegraph, October 28, 2006.
- “Beijing Stamps out Poor English.” BBC News, October 15, 2006.
- “Funny Mistranslations from Around the World.” Catherine Christaki, Lingua Greca, February 21, 2013.
- “That’s Not What I Said.” Time, undated.
- “The Greatest Mistranslations Ever.” Fiona Macdonald, BBC Culture, February 2, 2015.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on February 09, 2019:
Great article! I've lived in Japan for a few years but I still never get tired of it.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on June 30, 2017:
Very interesting episodes of Mangled English Translations. I'll have to re-read this with a friend or two listening so they can help me laugh. Thanks for the humor.