Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Say What You Mean

I recently saw a newspaper headline that said, “Slain Officer Dies.”

Well, yes. While the subject matter was decidedly serious, the headline itself gave me pause.

We all use language to communicate. Sometimes we end up with unintended results.

As George W. Bush, a wonderful source for slightly off-kilter comments, once said, “In my sentences I go where no man has gone before.”

And it’s not just a problem in the English-speaking world.

In Quito, Ecuador, a trio of language pedants have taken it upon themselves to identify and correct misplaced commas and other atrocities in the city’s graffiti. They make sneaky corrections with spray paint. One of them, an environmental lawyer who goes by the name “Agente Punto Final,” or “Agent Period,” says that he acts out of a moral obligation that language matters.

Distorted translations can produce interesting results.

John F. Kennedy, speaking to an assembly in Berlin, famously gave a statement of solidarity that could be
translated as “I am a jelly donut.” He said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” In German, the indefinite article is omitted when speaking of an individual’s profession or residence. And a “Berliner” is a jelly donut.

Those of us who have spent Christmas Eve trying to assemble toys with directions written by someone with apparently minimal English skills and a dictionary appreciate how awkward translations can be. “For assembling tab B to slot 4A overreaching section D making solid contact in order to insert joiner F prominently in space.”

My brother had a favorite Vietnamese restaurant that he figured would become more popular when someone got around to retranslating the menu. Meanwhile, he enjoyed their spicy chicken and mushroom dish described as “chicken with fungus.”

And there’s the item on a Russian menu that describes “Beef language in cream with a mashed potatoes with pine nuts with cheese.” One can only think they were serving tongue.

Or the Swiss one that says, “Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.”

For the poor ladies—there’s the reported hotel signs “Please take advantage of our chambermaids.” A tailor shop in Hong Kong has a sign that says, “Ladies may have a fit upstairs.” In a store with female clerks, we are invited to “Please check out the cashiers.”

Pepsi allegedly introduced their slogan into the Chinese market "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" translated into Chinese it read a scandalous "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."

Then there’s the instructions for drivers in Japan. “If pedestrian obstacle your path, tootle horn melodiously. If he continue to obstacle, tootle horn vigorously and utter vocal warning such as ‘Hi, Hi.’”

And the ominous notice: “Beware of greasy corner where lurk skid demon. Cease step on, approach slowly, round cautiously, resume step on gradually.”

An article aimed at pet owners to take precautions to prevent the spread of a fatal disease among mammals, including humans, warned it was present in the wild and that “Contracting rabbis is inevitably fatal.”

Dan Quayle, another rich source for twisted quotes, apparently attempted to quote the United Negro College Fund Motto of "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." Unfortunately, it came out, "What a terrible thing it is to have lost one's mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is."
He also assured us that “Bank failures are caused by depositors who don’t deposit enough money to cover
losses due to mismanagement.” Something we need to keep in mind in these precarious financial times.
As he said, “I stand by all the misstatements that I’ve made.”

All interesting statements, if at times a bit confusing. Leaving us to ponder, “What’s the point of a rhetorical question?”


  1. One of my favorites is when Chevrolet introduced a new model named the Nova. The name sounded good in English. However, when the company salespeople tried to sell the car without changing the name to Spanish-speakers, they discovered that it translated into "Will not move."

  2. Hilarious! I can't think of any gems to add to your collection.

  3. So funny, KM! I've tried to assemble furniture using directions with awkward translations. It's a challenge.

  4. So funny, KM. I've been trying to remember some of the funny things my students said, but the only one I can remember is when they were assigned to write a report about a famous person - I had lots of biographies for their age to choose from. One little girl wrote about Jaqueline Kennedy who spent most of her time in the closet. I did browse through the book to see what made her write that, and I think it had something to do with buying clothes or something. Anyway, she considered that the most important fact in her rather short report.

  5. Oh, you made my day! My favorite was from the alarm clock I bought on a trip when I forgot my travel alarm (pre-cell phone apps). It was, of course, the cheapest thing on the shelf and when I read the directions for setting it, one of the instructions was "how to use the sleep embezzler." I thought it was the snooze alarm, but based on the large majority of the directions I could read, it was something entirely different. Which may be a good thing as I am not sure I want my sleep embezzled!

  6. Yes, Warren. Not too many people want a car that won't move.

    Margaret, I bet a few interesting ones will occur to you, probably at 3 AM some morning.

    Did your furniture turn out all right, Kara? Or did the directions lead you to put things on upside down and such?

    Gloria, kids are great for coming up with interpretations. I remember one kid who was asked if he was grateful for divine presence in his life. He said yes, he was especially grateful to Andy. When questioned further, he reminded the teacher that they had just sung about Andy in church. Andy walked with me. Andy talked with me.

    Kait, I don't think I want my sleep embezzled, either. I guess it will always remain a mystery what it was intended to do.

  7. KM, I had two small pieces left over that didn't look like anything pictured in the instructions. So far the furniture has remained upright. Maybe the pieces were unnecessary...

  8. I love malapropisms. I had a friend who collected them at work and at the annual Christmas party would read them off (without attribution) to great mirth.

    ~ Jim

  9. Thanks, Carla! I hope you enjoyed it.

    Better extra pieces than not enough, Kara. Maybe you can convince yourself that they really belonged to something else & just got stuck in there. I remember a jigsaw puzzle my mother had. As usual, she started with the corners. This time, there were five of them.

    Sounds like a fun party activity, Jim. I wonder if anyone recognized themselves.