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 [ BACK]  [NEXT]                       Issue #067 - 11/23/1997


Funny, Weird or Just Plain Odd Translations.

Bonjour, mes amis!
     Checking over the Funnies subscription list, it occurred to
me again just how much linguistic ground we cover.  Besides
English (should I say 'of course' here?), we have Malay, Spanish,
Japanese, German, Chinese, French, Norwegian, Afrikaans, Hebrew,
Pidgin, and quite a few others.  So the joys of translation are
pretty common in this crowd.
     It is curious how often mistranslations take on a life of
their own.  A great many words in English came into the language
mistranslated, and are still being used today.  And, in the
original story, Cinderella wore (in French) "une pantoufle en
vair" (a fur slipper).  Because the word "vair" was uncommon, the
17th century French translator thought it was "verre" (glass). 
Ever since then, Cinderella has worn glass slippers in the story.
     Muchos Gracias this week to: Jerry Taff, Waka Nishimura,
Carol Becwar, Peter Adler, Alison Becwar, Sarah & Jeff Morsman,
Nnamdi Elleh, Howard Lesniak and Mark Becwar.  Now, look up those
English-to-whatever dictionaries and have fun with the
     Habt ein toll Woche!


   - If a person who speaks several languages is called
     "multi-lingual," and a person who speaks two languages is
     called "bi-lingual," what do you call a person who only
     speaks one language?
                    -> An American. <-


   - The label on bottle of Japanese headache medicine includes
     the line:  "Adults: 1 tablet 3 times a day until passing


     Hong Kong has an amazing movie industry for such a small
place.  They are known for producing movies that are fast-moving
and colorful, with lots of fights and action.  A few stars have
even come out of the 'chop-saki' films, such as Jackie Chan.  But
most of the 'kung-fu' movies are poorly produced and directed and
are fitted with some of the worst translations ever heard.  This
is probably because they are done so cheaply.  Here are some of
the more interesting sub-titles from Hong Kong-made 'kung-fu'

   - "I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way."

   - "Fatty, you with your thick face have hurt my instep."

   - "Gun wounds again?"

   - "Same old rules: no eyes, no groin."

   - "A normal person wouldn't steal pituitaries."

   - "Damn, I'll burn you into a BBQ chicken!"

   - "Who gave you the nerve to get killed here?"

   - "Quiet or I'll blow your throat up."

   - "You always use violence.  I should've ordered the glutinous
     rice chicken."

   - "You daring lousy guy."

   - "Beat him out of recognizable shape!"

   - "I have been scared s***less too much lately."

   - "I got knife scars more than the number of your leg's hair!"

   - "Beware! Your bones are going to be disconnected."

   - "How can you use my intestines as a gift?"

   - "I'll fire aimlessly if you don't come out!"

   - "Take my advice, or I'll spank you without pants."

   - "The bullets inside are very hot.  Why do I feel so cold?"


     The French took some harsh criticism a couple of years ago
for testing atomic weapons in the Pacific.  The French Ambassador
to New Zealand, speaking at the National Press Club there, didn't
help the situation at all.  He said that he didn't like the way
the reports were translated:
     "I don't like this word bomb.  It is not a bomb, it is a
device, which explodes."  (NPR)

          [ "What kind of a bomb was it?"
               "The exploding kind."
                  - Inspector Clouseau in the movie
                      "Revenge of the Pink Panther" ]


     Just like English, Japanese has many words borrowed from
other languages.  Bread, for example, is "pan", which is borrowed
from the French, and most of us could figure out what "sanduichi"
is on a restaurant menu.  Since Western-style clothing came to
Japan quite recently, most of the words referring to non-Japanese
clothing are borrowed from English.  For example "hatsu" is hat,
"sha-tsu" is shirt, etc.  But not all of these words came into
Japanese with exactly the same meaning.
     Take the case of one American man living in Tokyo.  He and
his Japanese girlfriend were invited to a party at his friend's
home.  He was trying to explain to his girlfriend, who didn't
speak English, what the proper dress would be for the party. 
Since it was a casual party and he was picking her up on his
motorbike, he tried to tell her that it would be better for her
to wear slacks on their date.  Not being quite sure of the word
for slacks, he used the word "pantsu" for pants.
     His girlfriend's reaction to this was pretty strange.  What
he had actually said is that it would be a better for her to wear
underwear that evening.  ("Pantsu" = panties).


     It has been interesting to see the cooperation between the
Russian and American military over the past few years.  But there
are still a few problems.  Just after the breakup of the Soviet
Union, a Russian military plane was on its way to land at an
American base in the far east.
     The Russian pilot, who didn't speak English, had to rely on
an official Army translator to understand the landing
instructions from the American base.  When the controller
ordered, "Aeroflot 57333, come right on in," the interpreter
told the pilot, "Povorot napravo!" (Turn right!).
     Now flying diagonally across the airfield, the Russian plane
missed a fighter taking off on the next runway by inches and a
mountain range by not much more.   Everyone survived the mishap,
though it took almost the entire crew to keep the pilot from
strangling the interpreter once they were safely on the ground.


     In one French translation of an English book, the words
"spring chicken" - meaning a young person - was rendered as
"poulet a ressorts"  (literally, a chicken with springs).


     The Best (worst) mistranslation into Hebrew I've ever seen
is "Eggs Benedict", mistranslated on a restaurant menu into
"Benedict that smells like an Egg."  (Contributed by Avishay


     The Swedish translation of the manual for an American-made
packaging machine caused some serious confusion for the Swedes.
The manual was supposed to call a particular button "Stand-by
mode."  But, because the American translator used the wrong word
for a wait or pause, the manual instead said that pushing the
button would cause the machine to become pregnant.


     During the final years of Ferdinand Marco's regime in the
Philippines, there was a large political movement to get rid of
all remnants of the country's colonial past and revive the
Philippine language and culture (further proof that patriotism is
the last refuge of a scoundrel).  One thing that particularly
bothered these ultra-nationalists was that the common name for
their country was a reference to colonial rule, having been named
(by Westerners) to honor King Philip II of Spain.
     Without much thought or research, these nationalists decided
to push to rename the country "Maharlika", after a native word
meaning noble and aristocratic.
     Plans for the renaming of the country continued until
scholars pointed out that the word was derived from the Sanskrit
words "maha lingham" meaning "great phallus."  Politically
correct is one thing, anatomically correct is more than they 
bargained for.  The idea was quietly dropped.


     Speaking of anatomical names...  There is a popular Mexican
restaurant chain here in the US named "Chi-Chi's" - a name which
must draw laughs from people who really understand Mexican
Spanish.  In Mexicano slang, the word "chi-chi's" is a pretty
impolite word for "breasts".


     An American businessman was invited to give a speech in
Japan.  Although he considered himself to be a good speaker, his
speech went very poorly.  All of his jokes fell flat and his good
points had only the faintest reaction from the audience.  There
was just a little polite applause at the end.  Disappointed, he
went back to sit down with his Japanese associates.
     The next speaker started speaking in Japanese and from the
start it was clear that this speech was a huge success.  The
audience laughed and applauded almost everything that the speaker
said.  Being a good sport, the American decided to applaud too,
despite the fact that he couldn't understand anything the man was
     "No, sir.  You must not applaud," his Japanese colleague
     "Why?," the American protested, "He is a good speaker. 
Listen to that audience."
     "Please, sir.  You must not applaud.  He is translating your

© 1997 by Bill Becwar. All Rights Reserved.