Mistranslations - Slip and Fall

Warning: Slip and Fall Down Carefully!

Nobody thinks much about signs, even in public parks where walking down a hill can be dangerous. Translating from Chinese to English can be a problem especially if done directly. Chinese grammar is significantly different from English. This is also a common difference between most major languages. In Chinese, the reminder to be careful comes at the end of the sentence, which results in the above translation: “Slip and fall down carefully.” It could have been translated to “Careful. You might slip and fall down.” Instead a direct translation was used.

Translating languages word for word, or by parsing phonetically, will lead to interesting results. The above translation is a close enough approximation. However, for English speakers, they would point out the mistake. If taken literally, the sign would be laughable.

Another problem with mistranslations is that the message becomes secondary to the mistake. It is not that the mistake leads to the reader misunderstanding the message, but that the message is taken less seriously. For a single line warning sign on a hill, the message might be understandable, even if it takes some time to understand. With longer text, or even sentences, letters, documents, and manuscripts, this level is not acceptable. It takes too much effort to decipher the sentences and bring them around to English or any other target language.

Translations should not be limited to word for word conversion from one language to the other. There should also be the effort to convey the correct message, even with a difference in grammar, sentence construction or context.

Like the sign, translation should be done with care. In the properly translated text, “care” should come first in the reminder about translations. There should be care and research in trying to find the right translation. This will result in translations, which would convey the right message, with the proper cultural inflection.

Image credit – 40 Most Bloodcurdling Chinese Mistranslations Ever via seenox.org

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