Pseudotranslations

Imgur (pronounced “imager”), a popular image-hosting social website, has a fun thread on translation errors and substitutions in speech.

It starts with a user saying his Russian wife asked for a roll of inches when she meant a tape measure, and the comments soon filled up with more in this vein: some poetic, some amusingly absurd, a few resulting from memory failure in the speaker’s own language.

I did not know the words for ‘ice cubes’ in German so asked for ‘very cold water with corners’ (from user slimydog)

My dutch neighbor called a [merry]-go-round a horse tornado. (disguisenburg)

I have referred to Muffins as bread mushrooms. (zinvader)

When I was learning English I could not remember the English for Reindeer, so I called it a Christmas Llama. (Unusualpretense)

When I was learning Swedish and making plans with friends, I kept telling them “Smells good!” when I meant “Sounds good!” (freegiant)

I went to say “a bee!” in Japanese but said “a jar of honey!” instead. (jlist)

Couldn’t remember “shower” in Spanish once, had to tell the maid my friend was “in falling water” (theblueshell)

My friend from France never said “Go Away”. Instead: “PUT AWAY YOUR FACE!” Its my favorite expression to this day <3

I know I’ve produced some howlers/classics of my own when I was learning languages, or trying to communicate in other countries, but none come to mind this evening. Got any to share? Smells good!

Update:

See the follow-up at All Things Linguistic, which has further examples in the post and comments, and queries the pronunciation of imgur.

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43 Responses to Pseudotranslations

  1. anne mcd says:

    I had an Italian roommate who asked me almost every day if I wanted mice on my salad. (She was attempting to derive an English version of French maïs, meaning corn.)

  2. Roger says:

    French-Canadian English: “get out of my face“
    (not the later “in your face“). I don`t know whether
    it translated from French or was just typical.

    One from the book: “C`t`un wanne-wé“ = “C`est un sens unique“
    (one-way street). — Canadian French for Better Travel.

  3. maceochi says:

    Once in Russian I tried to form the diminutive of ‘lob’ (лоб – forehead – I wanted to say ‘little forehead’) and so said ‘lobok’ with the stress on the 2nd syllable. Turns out that means ‘pubic area’ and the correct diminutive of ‘lob’ is ‘lobik’ with stress on the first syllable.

  4. flickas says:

    Comparing wintery conditions with an american friend I couldn’t find a word to say that the snow on our road was festgefahren, so I told her that it had been trampled by cars.

  5. alirue says:

    I knew a guy who was trying to tell someone he liked large grapes in Japanese and he ended up saying he liked large breasts.

    Hello, by the way! Nice blog you’ve got here.

  6. fromcouchtomoon says:

    My husband from Mexico has a lot of these but my favorite was when he was referring to Easter and asked “What is it called? The eggs pass? The day they pass the eggs over?”

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      I got a wee chuckle out of your hubby’s query re/ Easter and his ‘pass the eggs over’ take. (Couldn’t help seeing that embedded “pass…over” in his question. A totally different holy day, to be sure.)

      Got me thinking about another significant holiday, namely our more secular Thanksgiving Day, and the traditional turkey fest that celebrates this annual family gathering of observing gratitude for all our blessings… great and small.

      I’m sure your husband wouldn’t object to calling it ‘The day they pass the mashed potatoes and gravy over”? (No offense to your hubby, intended.)

  7. Malie says:

    Once, trying to convey “I used to work for a charity that raised money for a hospice” in German but not knowing the words for “charity” or “hospice”, I ended up saying something more along the lines of “People gave me money so that they would die comfortably.”

    I also once misremembered “Handschuhe”(gloves, lit. ‘hand-shoes’) and tried to get some gloves by asking for “Handsocken”(‘hand-socks’), and the shop assistant asked if I meant “Handpuppen”(sock puppets). Oh the fun we had…

    The most embarrassing one though was being asked why I was late to meet someone, and I meant to say “Wegen dem Unfall”(Because of the car crash) but instead said “Wegen dem Durchfall”(Because of the diarrhoea). My embarrassment of course stemming from the fact that “wegen” should take the genitive not the dative.

  8. When I was in Essen, I thought I was asking “How much is the wine?”, but apparently I mispronounced the last word. The German bartender replied, in English, “You want to buy Vienna?”

    When I was in Quebec, I stopped at the Casse-Croûtes and tried to order some poutine in French. Wrong pronunciation again. The woman in the chip wagon said, “You’re looking for a hooker?”

  9. Thanks for the big smile on my face, Stan!

  10. adamf2011 says:

    In Thai, there are two ways of saying “bath towel” that I know of; the expressions would translate word for word as “cloth wipe/pat body” (i.e., a cloth for wiping your body off) and “cloth hair mouse” (i.e., a cloth with fibers — the terrycloth — resembling mouse hairs).

    But a few months ago I found myself mixing up the two expressions and asking the clerk at the hotel I was staying at for a “cloth wipe mouse” — i.e., a cloth for patting a mouse dry.

    When I realized my mistake, I was quite amused by the image that came to mind of myself using a towel to dry off a mouse after its bath!

  11. Ali says:

    children do this too – my daughter bruised her knee and said she had a ‘purple hurt’

  12. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:

    My ex-wife, who is French, once told me that she liked a male singer; “Ainjuhbred Humpadunk” (Engelbert Humperdinck), and occasionally, she bit her “tonk” (tongue). Her favorite sleuth was “Shelig Homes.”

  13. Dorian says:

    xkcd did a cartoon on this recently:

    http://xkcd.com/1322/

  14. Stan says:

    Thanks for all your examples and anecdotes so far. I’ve enjoyed them greatly, and am tempted to adopt some of them!

  15. Sean J. says:

    As a boy once I spent a summer holiday in London. The youngest children in the family I stayed with were twins.
    One afternoon I asked: “Are Alison and Gillian one-egged twins?” – About two minutes later my next question was: “What’s so funny about my question?”
    Since I know that they who in German are called ‘eineiige Zwillinge’ in English are ‘identical twins’.

  16. Dragnfli says:

    When my parents went to France, my mom being an iced tea drinker kept asking for “tea, glacé” they looked at her like she was crazy. I think they finally settled on getting a cup of hot tea and a glass of ice to pour it over.

  17. astraya says:

    Sometimes second language speakers mean exactly what they say. In one conversation class in Korea, we were talking about holidays. After covering public holidays and widely observed occasions like Hangeul Day (not then a holiday) and Teachers Day (not a holiday), we talked about Valentines Day, White Day and Pepero Day. Pepero (빼빼로) is a biscuit-type snack – long sticks of biscuit dipped in chocolate and covered in crushed nuts. Pepero Day is 11 November (11/11) because the manufacturers decided that that date looks like sticks of Pepero. One can give Pepero to a wider range of people than chocolate on Valentines Day or White Day. I said “But why give Pepero? 11/11 also looks like pencils. Why not give pencils?” One student looked at me deadpan and solemnly assured me: “Food is more useful than pencils”.
    This was possibly the first time that anyone had uttered that sentence in English. It wasn’t the last, because I often tell the story.

  18. In his essay “Jesus Shaves,” David Sedaris recounts (maybe with a few embellishments) his attempt, during the second month of a conversational-French class in France, to explain American Easter to his teacher and classmates. “The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate” never fails to crack me up. http://scottduncan.free.fr/blog/jesus_shaves.pdf

    • elizdanjou says:

      Nancy, that essay is one of my all-time favourite pieces of writing of all time. In addition to the hilarious linguistic struggles, there’s the theme of explaining, comparing, and, instinctively, defending, cultural traditions that, being cultural traditions, really don’t make much sense. I laugh out loud every time I read it.

  19. Stan says:

    Thanks again to all for the amusing and illuminating comments.

    Sean, I never knew that about eineiige Zwillinge.

    The xkcd cartoon reminds me of what I like about his work (the idea, the simplicity) and what I don’t (the ingratiating tweeness).

    • Sean J. says:

      Neither did my hostess, obviously.
      Ah, how embarrassed I felt when she could hardly stop laughing. With hindsight it was hilarious a situation, though, which makes me smile whenever I am coming to think of it.

      • astraya says:

        In medical/scientific-register English, it is perfectly possible to say ‘Are they monozygotic twins?’.

  20. wisewebwoman says:

    And sometimes in English derivatives: as she is spaketh in Ireland vs Canada.
    I’ve never forgotten the awestruck faces of the Irish-Canadian rugby team on an away game in Quebec City when the wife of one of the opposing team members at the pre-game party asked: “Well, which one of you guys is going to knock me up in the morning?”
    XO
    WWW

  21. Ali says:

    in Berlin, asking for dry white wine will bring you three glasses….

  22. astraya says:

    Not pseudotranslation errors, but two different students produced mirror-image statements within a week, this week. On Monday, a lower-level student answered the question “How long have you been living in Australia?” with “I have been living in Australia for one hour [other students laugh] ummm, one year”. Today, a higher-level student was talking about travelling to class. She said “By the time I walk to the station, catch the train and travel to the city, it takes me one year to get – errr, one hour to get to the city”.

    Ali – a Roman walked into a bar and held up his index and middle fingers and said “Five beers, please”.

  23. […] “Very cold water with corners” and other awesome pseudotranslations Via: stancarey.wordpress.com – Tagged: Semantics View on Counterparties.com → Source [Reuters: Counterparties] […]

  24. oddnoc says:

    Reblogged this on oddnoc > 140 characters and commented:
    Language R funny.

  25. Blogger says:

    I know someone who wanted to say that the air in the mountains was too thin, but being unable to find the right translation for the Russian word “razryazhenniy”, he said: The air has holes.

  26. BenHemmens says:

    One time at the research institute where I then worked, I put my head round a door and asked the man sitting in the room if I could use the lift for a minute. He looked puzzled and said (I think) sure you can, but you won’t find it in here. What I wanted was the fume cupboard (Abzug), not the lift (Aufzug).

  27. Oisín says:

    I remember two incidents that happened to friends while I was studying in Italy: one girl who couldn’t remember the word for ice so asked for ‘acqua dura’ (= hard water), prompting a bemused look from the barman; another girl telling her Italian boyfriend’s parents she loved ‘ficas’ (vulgar word for vaginas) instead of ‘ficos” (figs). Here at least the context cleared things up quickly :)

  28. Jodie Martin says:

    I ran into a friend when she had just come back from a year of speaking German in Switzerland. Mid-sentence she unconsciously used a German word. When I asked for clarification, she couldn’t remember the word in English:
    Her: Oh you know, the place where the bus stops?
    Me: … The bus stop?

    In France my friends and I called vegetable stock “magic salt” and plantains “banana cousins”, partly because nobody can be bothered leaving the kitchen to find a dictionary.

  29. Stan says:

    Oisín, Jodie, et al., thanks for your great examples. I might have to add magic salt to my kitchen phrases.

  30. […] a recent post on pseudotranslations, I wrote that Imgur, of imgur.com fame, was pronounced “imager”. But this skated over a lively […]

  31. […] you thought this post was simply the bees’ knees, then check out Stan Carey’s post on pseudotranslations, which is all about the bizarro things people can say when they try to speak a foreign language, […]

  32. Lauren says:

    While teaching English in Japan, I asked a student of mine what he had done over the weekend. He thought for a while, looked puzzled, and then replied that he had gone to the “fish museum.”

  33. […] writing up Tuesday’s post I reread Stan Carey’s piece on pseudotranslations. Some of the commenters recalled mispronouncing words in a way that had grossly altered the meaning […]

  34. mariomagued says:

    Reblogged this on El rincón de las lenguas and commented:
    ¡Parece que la creatividad del ser humano surge cuando está aprendiendo una segunda lenguas

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