Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Urban legend word games

Everyone knows that, in the Eskimo language, there are 200 words for "snow" but not one for "donkey"; that well-known brands of cars and cool drinks translate into embarrassing insults in foreign languages, and that, in some hotel lobby in Paris, a sign reads: "Please leave your values at the front desk."

Everyone might know these "facts", but most of these stories, and numerous of their relatives, are pure urban legends. They are inspired by suspicion about foreigners and prejudice against foreign languages. And they are so widely told in situations where no one can prove or disprove the claims, they take root and eventually become an automatic part of people's beliefs.

Snow truth in this

The Eskimo tale is a perfect example. A well-known international magazine reported a typical version of the urban legend: when it came to translating the bible into their Inuit language, the translators were stumped: "They have 30 words for 'snow' but no word for sheep or donkey. 'Lamb of god' is translated as 'God's fluffy thing that looks a little like a caribou calf'," the magazine reported.

Sheer myth.

Besides the fact that the term Eskimo is regarded as an insult by the Inuit people, the language is not very different from anyone else's in the naming game. It was first put down in written form in 1742, and has had extensive contact with Western languages. The fact that there are different words for ice, snow, powder snow, deep snow and watery snow should come as no surprise: the same applies in English. Instead of adding words like "powder" and "deep", they are combined into the original word, forming what can be called a new word. Not unlike many Afrikaans words...

John F Doughnut

The most famous urban legend involving a supposed mistranslation is the belief that John F Kennedy, on his visit to Berlin after the Berlin Wall had been erected, had the locals in stitches with his famous quote: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

As far as the Germans were concerned, goes the legend, he was saying "I am a jelly doughnut".

The fact is, the term can be translated that way, since there is a style of doughnut called a Berliner. But the Germans understood exactly what Kennedy was telling them: "I am a native of Berlin". Because both translations are accurate, the myth has survived.

Automatic confusion

Any phrase translated and re-translated often enough in untrained hands will come out
sounding bizarre. Computer translation programs can give users hours of fun by translating a phrase from one language to the next and finally back into English, for instance turning a cliché like "even a child can do it" into "a neat baby can act her".

So it is not surprising that alarming claims are made about training manuals translated from foreign languages back into English. Supposedly, a Russian/Chinese mechanical translator translates "out of sight, out of mind" into "blind and insane", and "Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" into "the drink is good but the meat is rotten". Both are famous urban legends, with no basis in fact.

Branded legends

While such myths and mistranslations seldom cause international incidents, others surely would - if they were true. A famous soft drink that made a trade breakthrough after Richard Nixon visited China in the early '70s, eventually flopped. The reason? Their slogan, "Come alive with Pepsi" translated in China as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead".

It might translate that way, but no such translation was ever used. And an American car introduced into Spanish countries, the Chevy Nova, was supposedly a failure because it translated into "No go". It does - but only by tortuous twisting of the Spanish language.

Such myths help give a sense of perspective to frightening tales of corporate blundering on foreign turf. Like the manufacturer in Singapore who received an order in French for 100 000 trombones for the US armed forces in Vietnam - or so he thought. In fact, trombone is the French word for paper clip.

Or the American food company that introduced the Jolly Green Giant brand into Saudi Arabia, only to see it translated as "Intimidating Green Ogre". Or the fried chicken franchise that used its slogan "It's finger-lickin' good!" in Iran only to find it had translated as "It's so good, you will eat your fingers."

Lost in the translation

The best of the mistranslation legends are the tall tales about signs in hotels or at tourist attractions. They are especially popular because no one can disprove any such claim, and they easily fit the traditional source of urban legends: they were all spotted by a friend of a friend of someone, somewhere.

How do we know they're urban legends, then? Simple: no one has yet shown firm evidence, in the form of an authentic sign or convincing photo, proving one of the following really exists (although there is enough photographic evidence of bizarre signs to suggest these are also real):

In a hotel in Athens: Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 am daily.
In a hotel in former Yugoslavia: The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid.
In a Japanese hotel: You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.
In a Vienna hotel: In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.
On the door of a Moscow hotel room: If this is your first visit to Russia, you are welcome to it.
In an Acapulco hotel: The manager has personally passed all the water served here.
In a Copenhagen airline ticket office: We take your bags and send them in all directions.
On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.
In a Rhodes tailor shop: Order your summers suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.

And finally, two signs from a Majorcan shop entrance to explain how people manage to twist the English language into such a bizarre shape:

* English well talking

* Here speeching American...


Rebecca said...

"But the Germans understood exactly what Kennedy was telling them: "I am a native of Berlin". Because both translations are accurate, the myth has survived."

Yeah, I think everyone holds this up as THE mistranslation. I have to say that languages are not my strong point, I don't speak a word of German and I barely managed to drag myself through GCSE French but I somehow doubt that context is something exclusive to the English language. Just take a look at this, there are so many words in the English language that are spelt the same, pronounced the same, yet mean different things in different contexts.

And besides, even if those signs are real, it's not as though they're incomprehensible. I mean, if we're talking about safety signs or the like, yes, they should always be handled by professional translation agencies. But personally, I think it'd be a dull world without slightly off translations.

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