Odd things that loose in translation


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Odd things that loose in translation

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dec 11, 2007, 1:09 am

Have you ever watched a Bollywood film with subtitles and laughed at the verbiage?

Or tried watching the Das Boot DVD with English overdubbing AND English subtitles? -They're different.

Just thought people might be interested in people's every-day experiences with cultural translation errors.

Here's one from a Korean Ramyun package intended for sale in the US...

1. Boil 19 1/2 fl oz. of water.

...should be "1. Boil 2-1/2 cups of water." or better yet, "1. Bring 2-1/2 cups of water to a boil."

Just one oddity. I'm sure you'vegot some to share...

Redigeret: dec 11, 2007, 8:56 am

There a reference to "manifest destiny" in Night at the Museum. It's ipossible to translate that for any other country. In French? The result amount to the "manifesto of destiny"!

dec 11, 2007, 6:28 am

Don't get me started on the oddities of Polish to English... it can get scary! Then again, any language with 7 cases and 5 genders would be a bit odd when translated into English, don't you think? :)

dec 11, 2007, 6:32 am

Not strictly to do with books, but when I saw the 2nd Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I was in Japan. Towards the beginning, Captain Jack Sparrow is stumbling around a ship's cabin yelling "Where's all the rum gone?" He looks at empty bottle in his hand and says "Oh." In Japanese they translated it literally to "I drank it". Not strictly wrong, but somehow it misses the point...

dec 15, 2007, 1:35 pm

So far we have:

1) Boil 19 1/2 fl oz. of water.
2) Manifesto of Destiny
3) Anything Polish to English
4) "Oh, I drank it." in Japanese

There's got to be some more goodies out there....

Redigeret: dec 17, 2007, 12:37 am

One on the boob tube seen in Japan.
Pres. Clinton at a press conference told a reporter that

"I thought you'd never ask that question!"

The ironic tone of voice made it clear he meant he was waiting for the question, but the Japanese interpreter translated it as is, so it was lost. I would say about half the italics in English literature translated into Japanese fail to make it, for Japanese have a very hard time with our marked cases.

In general, the hardest thing to translate between Japanese and English are the punch-words, by which I mean the word at or near the end of the sentence that makes it witty. I devoted a chapter of a book written in Japanese (Eigo wa konna ni nippongo) to demonstrating why most humor that does not translate fails because of syntax rather than lack of shared cultural assumptions. I first realized how important the problem was when i read a translation of Beirce's Devil's Dictionary by a man whose book of humor written after he translated Blyth is perfectly funny, but . . .

I have also written a whole book on mistranslation in Japanese (Goyaku Tengoku) . It went 5 printings there, for translation is a big part of the culture. Here it is not, so i think it might be best to collect only the most stupendous misses of all. There is a topic called "The Barracuda That Turned into Roses" inside the group I made called Writing Books Together Right Here or something like that (I am not being cute; I have a horrible memory!). All translators are welcome to contribute to it.

dec 17, 2007, 9:47 am

Not even in a different language, but I frequently run the close captioning on the television. It's Interesting that mild expletives that are allowed to be spoken are frequently modified in the captioning. With the misspellings and sometimes whole sentences left out, it really seems that deaf viewers are being provided poor service.

dec 17, 2007, 11:33 am

In the title track of a comedy album, Waiting for the Electrician, or Someone Like Him by Firesign Theater, there was a situation where the main character was escorted to an elevator in a hotel in Turkey.

The Elevator Boy mumbled something (in Turkish) and the escorter translated -- "He asked if you are enjoying your stay at the hotel". The escortee replied, "Yes, I like your country very much." (Bold added to simulate the voice pattern...)

The Elevator Boy mumbled something else, and the translator then spoke, "He said 'Don't hear so loud, I can shout you'."

dec 17, 2007, 7:59 pm

Keigu's message reminded me of a story I heard on NPR, about Harry Potter in China (Yes, I know China and Japan are different worlds). While the publisher struggles to translate the work into Chinese well before releasing, dozens of pirates mistranslate, or even write unrelated works that claim to be the next Harry Potter book.

Here's the story...


Another related story I hadn't heard until I looked this one up...


Interesting, anway...

dec 18, 2007, 3:47 am

There's an entire website dedicated to the problems of translating HP in Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese: http://www.cjvlang.com/Hpotter/

dec 19, 2007, 12:04 am

It's Interesting that mild expletives that are allowed to be spoken are frequently modified in the captioning. (#7)

They go the other way, too. (Example.)

jan 28, 2008, 11:48 am

ref #6
...for Japanese have a very hard time with our marked cases.

English has cases? Who knew! Oh well, live and learn.

Could you give some examples?

Redigeret: jan 28, 2008, 5:20 pm

Thank you Modalursine for reading closely. For examples of what I meant to talk about, see the second paragraph of the following letter just submitted to "Ask-a-linguist" after failing to find a term I had taken for granted:

I have for years called a word that is stressed in English a "marked case" because that is what a professor of linguistics (well-published in Japan) used in a course I took about 30 years ago.

Eg., the words which I wrote in capital letters and you should imagine in italics: 1) YOU love him, 2) you LOVE him and 3) you love HIM.

Such italicized words are very often mistranslated into Japanese because Japanese use emphatic words, particles and verb endings to do these things rather than stress a word as we do in English, so they have no ear for it..

For lack of a better term, I have continued to use "marked case" (you will find in in at least two of my books in English). Someone has just expressed doubt about the usage and googling turned up NOTHING, so I am worried. Do I need to find another term? Was the term OK in 1978 but not now? Was my professor wrong, so now I must correct my books?

ps If what you insinuate is correct, would that mean you are a linguist, in which case, you can provide the answer right here? (And, if you have time, you to read my "Orientalism & Occidentalism: Is the Mistranslation of Culture Inevitable?" and let me know if you spot anything confusing or wrong, I would be very grateful!

jan 28, 2008, 5:23 pm

I've just watched a programme which had a section about outfits for cats (I know).

I don't have a cat but the section was very funny. The company who makes the costumes is foreign and the host of the programme read out the instructions, which had been translated into English:

"Many thanks purchase fine outfit for beloved cat. Please to insert cat inside fine outfit at a moment of choice. Hurrah with your family at the splendour of the cat. Please to allow many photographic images. When you have finished with your joy, remove the cat."

It would be worth buying a cat to get the outfit, just so I could show everyone the instructions.

jan 29, 2008, 2:51 am

Some of the companies in Japan are starting to realise the value of grammatically correct instructions in English. I did a couple of translation jobs while I lived in Japan just for local products like children's games sold at the museum. They were looking for a native speaker to make sure that the instructions were readable. While it helps to make the products look more professional, it does remove the joys of "Engrish" from our lives...

jan 31, 2008, 5:05 pm

re #6=>12 modalursine:=>,13=> Two linguists replying to my question to Ask a Linguist recommend I call the phenomenon I called marked case, which English has and Japanese lacks, "contrastive stress."

Other examples of "things that lose in translation" that are not individual words but something larger:

Strong emphatics in Japanese have no match in English. Why? Because we use words like "damn," "hell" and "lord," while Japanese use various verb endings for the same. All tend to get plain exclamation marks when Englished. Annie Dillard would not have needed to use the G word so much (and be criticised for it by E. Abbey and others) in The Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek if she wrote in Japanese, where one can write evocatively with without concrete names.

Punch words. Every one mentions how puns and cultural context make much humor untranslateable; but the situation when exotic tongues are involved are much worse as humor often fails to cross over from Japanese to English or vice-versa simply because the order of the syntax fails to allow the word that makes the statement witty by creating a surprise ending to remain where it should be: at the end. I first realized just how important this was reading a translation of The Devil's Dictionary into Japanese by a fine Japanese linguist and humorist. I guess I had better write those linguists again to see if there is an accepted term for my "punch word" and whether anyone, aside from me (many examples in Japanese: Robin Gill: Eigo wa Konna ni Nippongo) has written about the problem).

feb 5, 2008, 9:51 pm

6,12,13,16 - *jargon laden nit-picking* I would have called the Japanese version marked emphasis or lexically marked sentence level emphasis, comparing it to the English phonetically marked emphasis. Stress (for technical linguistics) is a little different, referring to a contrastively emphasised syllable in a word (through loudness, length, phonation type, etc.). The Japanese equivalent is pitch-accent. */nit-picking*

okt 9, 2009, 8:48 am

One thing which often brings problems for translations to Finnish is use of genders; there is no separation of "he" and "she", so when the choice of the pronoun actually carries information, the translator has to juggle a bit...either using the names or expressions like "that man" or "that woman". Which often sounds a bit odd.

This does go a bit to the other way too. One Finnish children's author commented how a translator, Japanese I think, contacted her to ask about one of the characters in her book, if it was a boy rabbit or a girl rabbit. "It's a rabbit, what difference does it make?" Apparently in some languages it is crucial to know the gender of everything...

Another common translator problem comes from the manner of English-speakers constantly referring to the person they are talking to: "Could you do that, Richard?" "Of course, Sir." "Is the tea ready, Helen?" "I'll go out for a walk, children." which is not done in Finnish. So books with lots of dialogue can become quite problematic if the reader is expected to keep track who is speaking to who...

okt 9, 2009, 8:58 am

Back in the nineties when Bulgaria opened to the Western world, almost anyone decided that they can translate knowing only basic English. The results were somewhere between comical and tragicomical. Although I have a book published in the 80s in such a translation that I am still chuckling every time I read it (all names changed so they represent Bulgarian names to some extent and so on).

Unfortunately this trend continues even now - the big publishing companies are mostly hiring people that know their work but the funny parts are still there.... I do not want even to start grumbling about people that do not make the conversions - I know what an inch is but the regular reader does not (although using 2.54 centimeters instead of 1 inch in a fiction book is as annoying as leaving it as an inch).

And then I just do not want to start with the translation of the menus in some restaurants that decide to translate it into English ("pancake with copper" being one of the common ones for years - honey and copper are translated with the same word here).

Add to this a new law that says that any good sold here should have a Bulgarian label. So most companies either use one of those automatic translators or just use a dictionary and do some 'translation'. The results are hilarious in most cases.

nov 30, 2009, 3:02 pm

Will Stead,

Sorry to take too long to respond, but I would like to read more.

Annie Mode, I once lived next to a Bulgarian who taught me to sleep with the yoghurt I t tried to make, then his sister and boyfriend, a fine sculptor moved in, and they were wonderful, but ended up fleeing to my apartment and that was over 25 yrs ago . . . anyway, inches and ccms are not much, and honey/copper so-so but I bet there is is much more --- could you give us some more examples?

dec 14, 2009, 11:29 pm

I was watching a Korean show and during a dramatic, emotional scene, the English caption read something like this: His baby is growing in my belly.

This isn't completely on topic, but my other favorite example was back when my high school Spanish teacher told us, in English, about how she got her blueprints. We couldn't figure why it was such a big deal until we realized she was talking about meeting her husband, her Blue Prince, her principe de azul, which is apparently roughly the equivalent of Prince Charming.

dec 17, 2009, 12:44 pm

Atiara, I love the blue prince story and iuf you have any re translations (written) please find the forum or talk I started on this (and lost)! But, now I must borrow one eg given in chapter 7, "Or Maybe I Complain Too Much" of my worst-seller Orientalism and Occidentalism (actually, the "and" is an amperasand but Library Thing does not seem to like them) where Lightning Hopkin's words "Jesu brought me through all my troubles" is misheard as "Jesus brought me a blue owl in my caboose." The liner was written by Japan's top popular music publisher himself and it shows us that mis-interpretation often results from mishearing.

And I must say, I spea some Spanish but never heard of said prince -- is he like a blue bird? What is the etymology?

dec 23, 2009, 11:04 pm

I had no idea, it was just a phrase my teacher knew, and she thought everyone else knew it too. Apparently she did not realize that it does not translate literally into English (despite her constant admonitions to us not to translate "literalmente"). She was from Mexico City, if that helps.

I just looked it up and "principe azul" meaning prince charming is in the RAE and wordreference. There's also a wikipedia article, which gives a possible etymology of a fictional character who from the nineteenth century who may have been named "blue" because he was noble and therefore blue blooded.

jan 2, 2010, 10:12 am

I don't have an example on hand, but as one fluent in German who over the years has acquired many a small local guide to various castles, I have seen some wild distortions in their English versions--a very good reason to buy the German one!
And these are closely-related languages!!

apr 29, 2010, 1:39 pm

I don't know what made me think of it now, after all this time, but here goes:

SHortly after Trotsky's expulsion from the Party, the CPSU gets a letter from Trotsky himself. To the astonished comrades they read it aloud thus

To comrade Stalin
You are right and I am wrong.
You are the true heir of Lenin
I should apologize.

Then a Jewish comrade rises and says "Comrades, I think it should be read thus:

YOU are right and I am wrong?
YOU are the true heir of Lenin?
I should apologize?

apr 29, 2010, 10:23 pm


Gotcha! The you's are meant to be italics.

"I" is capitalized from the start, so I almost missed it.
It, too, is italicized.

That English can understand this is, I believe, thanks to Yiddishisms becoming English. It is one thing that does not Japanese well.


Redigeret: apr 30, 2010, 1:48 pm

ref #26
Yes, the initial pronouns get a stress and the sentences
become interrogative.

I'm always amazed by how many Yiddishisms are not only understood among the general public in the USA but are actually used by relatively high tone publications. Even in the UK, you can hear such locutions as "The Posh Nosh" or "Get stuffed! You schmuck!"

Its probably apocryphal but I've heard tell of an actual store in Japan called "Taka Matzia" (yiddish for "certainly a bargain" ) There is of course, the perfectly legit, "Taka Shimaya" )

While I'm "free associating" here, I recall that Naomi is a Japanese name. Our daughter, also named Naomi knew many Japanese and Korean students in her classes at Parson's School of Design. One Korean gal, hearing that her (my daughter's) name was Naomi understood at once that the only way such an obvious round eye would have a Japanese name would be if she were adopted, and so concluded that she must have been adopted by Americans of Japanese descent. Most Logical Captain! Also hilarious.

maj 1, 2010, 11:20 am

Come to think of it, a person's name is an odd thing that loses in translation.
Naomi is also a name in english, though it is pronounced Nay~ rather than Now~.
Modalursine, did you ever read Tanizaki Junichiro's book that touchstone's just told me is "Naomi" in English (i read it as a crazy man's love, in jpse)! I recall that it was called a high color (could be occidental) name. I always felt the bk might have been read more if the name were as euphonious as Lolita, but come to think about it, we have the same vowels . . .