Thursday, January 11, 2007

Mistranslations

Everyday I'm being reminded of how hard it can be to translate ideas from one language to another, even amongst those who are very proficient in another language. Not that I can complain, their English is infinitely better than my Mandarin/Cantonese/German/Spanish/French. . .

I can usually understand what writers/speakers are trying to communicate, but it does make me pause and go, huh that's a unique way of putting it. . . the Mainland is notorious for this (rightfully so from my experience), see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinglish, but there's still a bit of it in Hong Kong. For example:
  • The head of the dorm is the Warden, I live on Block A, and the staff goes on patrol (though given all the rules and regulations I think it can be appropriate at times)
  • There's a clear sports drink called Pocci Sweat. (Why on Earth would you name a drink "Sweat?" Gross)
A different, phenomenon occurs in class sometimes when the professor stops abruptly and goes "Hmm, I don't know how to say this in English." and will bust out some chinese to which the chinese members of the class will nod or laugh. Meanwhile I'm sitting there not getting in on the joke.

Not to say this is just a Chinese phenomenon. It's pretty universal. . . For Christmas dinner in Hangzhou we met up with some additional Germans through the other Germans on the trip. It was a great family style meal and we ate like kings. I ate a fair amount, but no more than the others. With 7 out of the 10 people at the table being German you can imagine that a lot of German was being spoken, and I ended up tuning out a lot of the conversation and conversing in Spanish with the Spaniard.

However when all the dishes on the table were nearly clean, one of the germans we had just met unsolicietedly yells, in English, across the table to me "Do you need us to order you more food!" Which I interpreted as a pointed remark implying I was being a pig. I got a little defensive and started getting cagey and this only prompted further cross-examination. Turns out he meant to say "Are you still hungry?" and wanted to gauge whether there was interest in ordering more food, no veiled insults implied. . .

Finally, I wasn't going to share this experience given the public nature of the web and the fact a wide audience is reading, Hi Mom and Dad, Hi Grandma and Grandpa! But here it goes. . .

In Hangzhou (on the Shanghai trip), 2 of the Germans, the Spaniard, and I go out for some beers at a bar. Being a weeknight, the bar was very uncrowded. This girl takes an interest in us and comes up to our table and we try to get her to teach us this Chinese dice drinking game we've been seeing everywhere. Her English is pretty poor, so we have no clue what the hell is going on. After a while she tries to get us to leave the bar with her to go dance somewhere else. We decline and she leaves. . .

Then one of the Germans goes "I think she was a bitch."

To which I respond "Huh? Yeah her English was bad, but I actually thought she was pretty friendly. Maybe overly so and a bit forward."

He responds . "Exactly my point!"

I must have given him a perplexed look because he goes "You know, bitch. . . prostitute."

"Oh you mean whore not bitch, and I don't think she was."

"Whore? What is this?"

This then sparks a lesson from me on the interrelated meanings but subtle nuances of bitch (and by extension son of a bitch), slut, whore (and by extension corporate whore which I used to describe myself), and ho. I also explain the etymology of bitch as meaning both female dog and how that evolved to its current usage. I also explain words with stronger connotations and how they should never be used. As I'm explaining, I notice the Spaniard furiously taking notes.

A couple of days later on the train back to Shanghai, he pulls out these notes and says "I learned so much good vocabulary from you this trip."

I'm so glad I did my little part to break down the language barrier one obscene word at a time.

9 comments:

meghaks said...

Very nice... spreading the wealth across the world. I applaud you BSLW.

Josekin said...

I knew I should have taught you some proper Chinese before you flew over the Pacific. Have you had the "no joking" comment from sales people when you low ball them?

SloopJohnBSLW said...

Yes, many times. Along with lookie lookie; Waaaiiiitttt;

PowerYogi said...

at this rate, you'll need some reverse educating once you get back :)

good times!

shmoo said...

Not quite the same idea, but when I first found www.engrish.com about 6 years ago, I could not stop laughing out loud in my cubicle.

Venkat N said...

Ah, if only the world leaders followed your direction in breaking down cultural barriers...:)

Looks like you are having way too much fun!

Le Voyageur said...

Two points Sloop Dogg:

1. You had me laughing out loud on this one.
2. You may have missed your calling as a diplomat.

H said...

BTW, "Warden" in this context is a British usage.

Ching-Hao Lu said...

Oops, as I was saying: "Warden" in this context is actually a British usage... :)