Translation is serious business as it requires concentration and attention to detail but beneath that serious façade is a lighter (and funny) side of language, culture and translation. These three things are somehow intertwined when you discuss the business of providing language services.
It takes tremendous effort on the part of the translator to provide the best translation possible no matter how big or small the translation project is. It shows the pride of the translator in providing high quality and accurate translation, a distinctive mark that represents the complete dedication and astonishing work ethic of professional translators.
But hey, translators are humans, too, so they also enjoy the lighter side of language, culture and translation. That cannot be helped, because in their work they are likely to encounter them – the mistranslations, the language and cultural gaffes and the unintentional errors and omissions that are funny despite being unacceptable due to the nature of their work.
Looking at the lighter side of language, culture and translation
Do you know what an ”ant milker” is? In Arabic, it means a mean cheapskate. An Italian idiom that says, ”Fine words do not feed cats” means talk is cheap in English.
If you are passionate about languages, you’ll be fascinated with the many things that make languages the subject of many discourses, studies and research. Words tend to change their meanings over time. Take the words awesome and awful. Their root is the word awe yet their meanings are different. They were synonymous in the olden days, as awe’s meanings were dread, terror or fear. When used in reference to the Supreme Being (God), it meant respectful (reverential fear). Somehow, awful became the opposite, as it was used to indicate something extremely bad or frightful while awesome is used to mean stunning or marvelous.
Nice, which came from ”nescius” used to mean ignorant. During the 1300s it was used to mean ignorant, foolish or silly, but after two more centuries of use, its meaning changed to sharp, attentive or meticulous. Three more centuries later, the meaning of nice became bland, reduced to mean pleasant or agreeable.
These are just some of the things that you can add to your chest of knowledge. Now, if you are after things that are funny, read on.
So many mistranslations can be found around the web. They have been shared so many times; it is possible that several of them found their way back to the original uploaders. Quite a number of them are repeats of the same things, such as the hard-to-understand translations of Chinese menus that either make you LOL or otherwise think twice about ordering a particular dish. The bloopers extend to signs and warnings. But take note! Errors in translation do not only happen in the Chinese language. They also occur in many languages because of trying to save money and using online translation tools.
This is a friendly reminder – work with professional translators for any type of translation, short or long, large or small.
- Mist Stick by Clairol was a curling iron introduced to German consumers. However, the company or the advertising agency failed to do an in-depth research and learned too late that the term mist in German translates to manure. Would you use manure to style your hair?
- Gerber baby food used to be sold nationally in the United States. When it grew and became an internationally known brand, it explored different markets, including Africa. However, they retained the Gerber baby image that was on the label. They did not expect that many African companies utilize pictures in their product labels to show consumers what is inside the package or bottle. It’s because most consumers are unable to read. Ergo, consumers in Africa thought the worse: that Gerber sold pureed babies.
- Colgate has many products and it once introduced a toothpaste brand in France called “Cue.” If they did research and worked with a translator, they wouldn’t have suffered embarrassment in knowing that their brand was also the name of a French porn magazine.
- Maybe you have encountered this one if you’ve seen several Chinese mistranslations. Pepsi Cola’s tagline, Come alive with the Pepsi Generation became Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave. Oh, my!
- The same thing happened to Pepsi’s perennial rival, Coca-Cola. The first translation of the brand in Chinese was Ke-kou-ke-la. It sounded very close to the American brand name. They then realized that it translated into female horse stuffed with wax or bite the wax tadpole, which hurt the brand. The company went through 40,000 Chinese characters just so they could have the right phonetic blend that was not too distant in pronunciation from the brand name. They finally settled on ko-kou-ko-le, meaning happiness in the mouth, which is more fitting and descriptive of the feeling you get when you take a sip of the soda.
Some gestures and non-verbal actions are considered rude in some cultures and all right in others. You might not notice them or you’re simply unaware that some of your actions could be misunderstood, due to lack of cultural knowledge. So if you love to travel or you work in a multicultural office, here are some behaviors that are not acceptable in other cultures.
- For the Chinese – Asking too personal questions.
- For Argentinians – Not including a friendly greeting in an email in the initial paragraph.
- For Nigerians – Looking at a superior’s eyes during a conversation.
- For Canadians – Failing to make eye contact when talking to each other.
- For Slovakians – Using the first name of the addressee in an email of introduction.
- For Germans – Including small talk during a business call, which Germans think is a waste of time.
- For the British – Failing to send a response to an email.
- For Emiratis – Asking a person why he or she has not responded to an email.
- For Hong Kong natives – Seeing someone spitting on the road.
- For Americans – Asking someone how much money was paid for the car.
- For Australians – They absolutely hate people who cut in line.
- For Brazilians – Standing at a distance when talking to someone.
Most of the cultural differences are more evident in social settings. But for a number of cultures, trust building also happens in social settings. As you can see from the examples, some of the actions are quite subtle, but they are noticed by people where these acts are not tolerated.
In some cultures, some words can hurt. Would you say that they are just words? Do you think people should learn to be more tolerant or simply lighten up and stop taking things personally?
We’re humans after all, and there are times when you are under pressure or simply too tired that a rude behavior, no matter how slight, can be annoying.
The only way to avoid such situations is to learn the customs and behaviors of other cultures, especially if you are living in a multicultural society or in a workplace that promotes diversity. While it may be too drastic to say, ”Ignorance excuses no one,” it’s being responsible to take the time to learn about other cultures, especially today where globalization keeps you in touch with people from different countries. The more informed you are, the more you’ll understand why someone acts that way. You should also remember that your actions might likewise be interpreted differently by other people.
Okay, some of the entries above are quite serious, but you get the gist. In short, keep cool, lighten up and spend some time to learn about cultural differences. They will do you a lot of good.
So let’s go back to the funny things that can happen when translations are bad.
Mistranslated signs around the world
Whether it’s a case of trying to save, being clever or because they do not know that professional translators are available, some places and establishments, even in the sophisticated cities in the world, can have mistranslations.
- For example, in one establishment in France is this sign that says, Reglement Piscine. Le non respect du reglement entraine l’exclusion. The English translation below it reads, Anyone obeying the swimming pool regulations may be required to leave.
- Still, in France, a sign says, Salle de bain hors d’usage. The English translation reads, Bathrooms useless. It’s misleading as the proper translation should be, Bathroom out of order.
- The Airports Authority of India has this sign, Eating Carpet is Strictly Prohibited.
- A sign in an Ecuador zoo says, Por favor no alimente a los llamingos. The English translation says, Please do not feed the flamingos. But the image is a silhouette of an animal from the camelid family. In all probability it is a guanaco, considering that the sign is from Ecuador and definitely not a flamingo.
- A Spanish sign says, Prohibido arrojar NADA dentro del sanitario with the corresponding English translation: It is forbidden to trow (sic) NOTHING down the toilet.
- Did you know that somewhere in China there is a Garden with Curled Poo?
- There’s also a sign from the Urban Mass Transportation Branch Shanghai Public Security Bureau that says, If you are stolen, call the police at once. (Help!) While signs for restrooms somewhere in China say, Male Man and Feman.
We take our jobs seriously
At Day Translations, Inc., we provide the most accurate translations possible, adhering to best practices and our own business ethics. But we also enjoy the lighter side of language, culture and translations like our colleagues. Yet, we do not forget our commitment to clients to render the best language service possible, whether the project is large or small. We work only with human translators who are native speakers of the languages they use. They are located in-country, ensuring that the linguistic nuances and cultural preferences are carefully considered. Contact us for translation or interpreting requirements. We are available anytime; anywhere you are in the world. Our offices remain open throughout the day, every day of the year. Send us an email at Contact us or call us at 1-800-969-6853 at your convenience.
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