The original, short version of this post was written for the Book Marketing Tools blog. This longer version was written as a guest post for Vanessa Finaughty’s blog.
One of the best ideas of Douglas Adams had to be the Babelfish. Just stick it into your ear and presto – you can now understand all languages. One of the things that always made we wonder, though, was how Babelfish might translate terms. For example, if someone said their computer has crashed, would it conjure an image of a person flinging their PC out of a window?
Now, I may be Greek, but I can easily understand what someone means when they say that their computer has crashed or that they didn’t save their file. Our culture and education have taught us these things. What about the rest of humanity, though?
Enter a lovely Economist article, describing the pitfalls of translating cultural idioms. When Mozilla tried to translate its web browser into as many languages as possible, it soon became clear that some words simply cannot be translated. For instance, a cookie (not the edible one, the digital one) has absolutely no translatable connection in some African dialects and people know a mouse as the little rodent most of us would like to keep out of our house.
It’s while reading this article that I realized the extent to which our language is geographically and culturally bound. In essence, words that the Mozilla people wanted to translate had to relate to things that are actually present in African peoples’ lives. Hence, translators had to find culture-specific words, closely related to livestock, farming and fishing because these are the activities that local people can associate themselves with.
The result? A computer crashing was translated into a word that basically means ‘a cow falling over but not dying’, which I think delivers the message nicely. Timeout was translated as ‘your fish has got away’ and cached pages were turned into ‘bits of leftover food’ – which I love as a comparison as it really gets the message across (even to me!). As for some people in Mexico who simply have no windows in their homes, Windows became ‘eyes’.
Why did I love this article? First of all, for its poetry. We use words to convey a message, and for the most part that works fine. However, we are so caught up in delivering the message, that we don’t consider the concept behind the words. We know exactly what Windows is and are happy to communicate in a fast and concise way about it. Everyone around us will understand us*. I find it poignant and inspiring that there are so many other – and beautifully written – ways to present Windows.
(* Although I’m reminded here of a dear old lady who was a client of mine back in Edinburgh. When her computer crashed, she called her son for help. He told her to close the window. After a moment, she returned to the phone. “Done! Would you like me to close the door as well?”)
I also find it remarkable –which highlights how presumptuous I am- that other people have no understanding of many words I use in my everyday life. I could have a conversation with some of these people and they would simply blink in desperation, completely ignorant of what on Earth I’m talking about. We assume that our way of talking and communicating is the ‘normal’ and universal one. However, words reflect a culture and civilization. They are representative of people, and since people are very different, it’s only natural that words and notions should be different as well.
And a last reason why I really liked this article: I tried to imagine how I would translate my books into Fulah (a Senegalese dialect), Chichewa (a Malawi dialect) or Zapotec (a Mexican dialect) and I had to laugh. So many words would have to be translated in culture-specific meanings, and I would love to see how a spaceship, an Orb, an e-lib and so many other words in my books would turn out. I’m betting that my books would become much more poetic, but also a good deal more surreal. Perhaps they could even be entered into whole new book categories!
Space cows, anyone?
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These are funny pictures. Yet there is another huge list with over 140 photos for this sort of hilarious Chinese>English translations. Check them out at https://www.actranslation.com/knowledge/fun/hilarious-translations.htm. They will keep you laughing out for hours.
This is a great exercise to teach students in high schools 😀 I must admit, the translations are quite funny especially when you know what they mean.
The possibilities for hilarity are endless 🙂
Too funny, Nicholas! You don’t realize all of the cultural differences! Also interesting about different professions as well…if you are working with computers, such as jump drive or floppy disc, or if you are working in medicine! In medicine, it is a whole different language with STAT, CBC, ASAP, Diff! Totally different languages have been incorporated specific to occupation! Interesting! How about this one…Thinking outside the box! That would be funny translated too! Great post and something to think about! LOL!! 🙂
Once you start thinking about literal translations, the fun never stops. It’s a great source of humour, too. If you think about it, probably half the word-based jokes are based on mis-“translations”.
So true! Probably wars have been started because of it!
I LOVE this! Isn’t it funny how something so natural for us seems so foreign to others? Now, I need to read the article.
Sure is! That’s why I always smile when sci-fi movies make automatic translation look so easy.
Reblogged this on Davetopia and commented:
There is something both pleasing and humbling about the varied metaphors.
As a suitable coincidence, the talented Neil Murton was inspired by the feast of St Cyril to write upon the same theme. https://neilmurton.co.uk/2015/02/man-of-letters/#more-1020
I shared this to my Linguistics and Conlangs group on Facebook!
That’s awesome, thank you!! 🙂
The origins of words always fascinates me, but I never thought about how the words we use everyday in reference to technology would pose difficulties in translating to some languages. Very interesting post!
This reminds me about all those articles I find on movie titles having odd translations in other countries. I found this one last week:
I know very little about the translation programs, but do they consider slang? Just thinking about how there are multiple words for the same thing even in the same country.
Lol – good one! 😀
Translations programs usually create hilarious results when translating slang.
I should see if there’s any info on Lord of the Rings and other fantasy books getting funny translations. That would not surprise me.
Anything with neologisms is bound to be funny. Also, for some reason, anything translated into Chinese and back.
Never knew that about the Chinese translation. Now I’m tempted to play with a program and see what happens.
You should. Just be sure to share the results 😀
In the meantime, you may enjoy
Thanks. Definitely needed a laugh after this morning. 🙂
We aim to please 🙂
True. We do not think how something will translate from English to another language. Now that you’ve posted this, I wonder how difficult it would be to translate sci-fi and fantasy. Not a job I can imagine. 🙂
It can be hilarious. I remember reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars in Greek, then Green Mars in English. I had a really hard time following the plot for a while!
Even funnier was the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, of course. I didn’t envy the poor translator’s job (although they did a pretty good job)
Sometimes while sending a text my iPhone translates it into a foreign language never seen before! Hahaha!
Great post! ~Elle
Lol – that’s just Siri showing off 😀
Living in Ireland I see this with the Gaelic language too. There just is no translation for some words or concepts. Also there are so many versions and dialects. Added to which, it is a very ambiguous language at best. But that’s why children in Ireland dont like learning it, its very complex.
Isn’t modern Gaelic “made-up” to some extent, though? Perhaps that explains the ambiguity.
It’s not so much that modern Irish is made up, Nicholas, that there are new words and concepts that didn’t exist in the old tongue before English became widespread, such as vocab for technology, etc. When it comes to the abstract, there are 17 words for everything in Irish, and as Ali says, not all translatable!
Ah, I see. Thanks. Another language for another time. Chomsky would be proud. 🙂
I really loved reading this post! It is not a subject a lot of people would stop to think about, but coming from a non English speaking background and learning two languages and a dialect as a child living close to a border between two countries in Europe, I really relate to this! The first word that came back to mind for me is “bellen”, which in Dutch means making a phone call (derived from the name of the inventor of the telephone, Mr Bell) and in German the same word stands for barking! They made up their own very different word of “Anrufen” which translates as “calling out”. These differences intertwined with a lot of very similar words in both languages can cause funny misunderstandings as you can imagine! Language as well as art, architecture, music and even human habits and behavior are all infused with culture and history, and we don’t even see it most of the time! Thanks for bringing this back to my attention 🙂
So glad you enjoyed it. You’re quite the language master! I love the concept of “bellen” as a word coming from Mr. Bell’s name. 😀
Wonderful translations! Though I must admit as an English speaker, I still get caught with computer language. It is a total new world of words. Excellent post! 🙂
Thank you so much, Barbara! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Blogging has made me far more aware of how much we use idiomatic phrases and words without even thinking. So did living in France and realising there are simply no direct ways to translate many expressions… or if you do then the meaning is utterly lost… and frequent so twisted people raise their eyebrows ….and it takes a lot for the French to do that… 😉
Lol – true dat! I’ve only visited, but Electra had a French upbringing, so I’m quite familiar with them.
I always have to watch my writing for “Greekisms” – literal translations of a Greek phrase that sound familiar in my head but would leave native English speakers scratching their head.
If you think that’s bad, try translating Yorkshire dialect 😉
Lol – I’d have to understand it first! 😀
Many British people would say the same 😉
Yet another people divided by a common language, huh? 😀
LOL… and so manyof them here 🙂
You should check those in the post forwarded by Charles: https://www.cracked.com/article_21860_the-9-most-hilarious-translations-famous-movie-titles.html
Hilarious translations, with captions and explanations. Enjoy!