Amused by Language

amused by language

This post is not so much about my studies of Russia and Russian, but about language in general, and some observations on humorous mistranslations. I could go on about my fascination with language and words, but for the sake of brevity I will try to limit myself here to examples of language gone wrong. I will focus on three categories of bad English, all of which relate to efforts to translate something from another language to English—the first includes the rather quirky results that the web-app Google-translate often produces, which I have already looked at in a previous post, Googlisms- Russian to English; for the next I will give two examples of dubious dictionary definitions; and finally I will look at some of the many hilarious examples of English “translations” of menus, signs, ads, etc. found in non-English speaking countries.

Translating Russian into English brings me to the awareness that each language has its own particular ways of using words for communicating the products of one human brain to other brains in a reasonably complete and coherent way. The differences among languages go far beyond different vocabularies. It is the variations in grammar, syntax and meaning that contribute to errors, sometimes serious, but often rather comical, in many translations.
The nonsense that is often produced when relying on purely literal translation is nicely illustrated by the Google-translate web app.Type a word, sentence, or even a document into the left-side field and it will, in seconds give a “translation” in any language you choose. The problem is that these translations are often very literal, and don’t conform to rules of grammar or style. A discussion, with some examples of this phenomenon are found in an earlier post: Googlisms-Russian to English, but I will add an additional favorite here.
The following is Google-translate’s take on a line from Master and Margarita:
In addition, the ear flew float, chirring horse coming and coming and trumpet, something short and fun shouted.”
This hardly comes even close to the meaning intended in the original Russian. Taking into account Russian rules of grammar and syntax, and my experience with English, I translated the same sentence like this:
Moreover, to the ear flew the rhythmic stomping and clattering of horses approaching and the sound of a horn blowing something clipped and lively.
Despite such obvious limitations, Google-translate can be a very useful tool. Of even greater utility to me, in my efforts to translate written Russian, are Russian-English dictionaries accessed on the web. But even something as straightforward as definitions for a single, specific word can be problematic. Below are two examples of English definitions that were given for Russian words by the iPad app ‘Dict-box’.

“Russian-English”
веки– n. tabasco, movable flap of skin which covers an uncovers the eye; eaves (sic)

“Russian-English full dictionary”
вовсе не– (т) not at all, not in the least knot at all (sic)

I have no way of knowing if these are errors made by humans or machines, but examples of problems in translation that almost always have that human touch are English translations of public information in non-English speaking countries. These are my favorite forms of bad translation. While visiting an old friend from High School, who was then living in Japan, I discovered that these manifestations of the English language held the same fascination for him. He related one example that we both laughed about for a long time. I think he said he had seen this one written in a bathroom in Seoul, South Korea:
Do not flush the paper or it will come a very bad thing.

Along these lines, here are some others that I found posted on the web:
amused by language 2 amused by language 3 amused by language 4

While I fully appreciate that these are the noble efforts of some often very intelligent people, and that I am probably guilty of similar errors when I try to speak or write Russian, they make me laugh both because of how they sound to an English speaker, and for what they say about the human condition in an increasingly inter-connected, but still poly-lingual world.

© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

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