Never ever ever …. seriously!

I said it before, I am saying it again: never, ever, ever translate a saying, proverb, slogan, idiom, expression literally.  Seriously, do not do it, it will not work.

This is a fundamental truth of learning another language and it seems hard to grasp for people.  Somehow I understand, if you only ever spoke one language you might not have an appreciation for the fact that other languages and other cultures see and describe things differently, feel about things differently and hence use other expressions and mental images to talk about it.

That being the case it is critically important to accept that it is that way and that – however logical or natural an expression might seem – it is likely not appreciated in a verbatim translation.

The now infamous "Mirror Egg"I still cringe when I think of my first trip to the US, many many years ago with a couple of friends. We were ordering breakfast and my friend ordered a “mirror egg”. I can’t begin to describe the confusion on the poor waitresses face.  In German a fried egg, sunny side up is indeed referred to as “Spiegelei” which, in the literal translation is a “mirror egg”.  The expression likely stems from the fact that while the egg white is curdled the yolk is still liquid and has a shiny surface.  At that time I wasn’t an expert on American breakfast egg preparation but it was immediately obvious to me that the literal translation was disastrous.  I have no idea how we resolved that situation but I remember to this day how uncomfortable it was.

But that kid of blunder isn’t just reserved for regular people with limited English knowledge.  Even big companies do stuff like that, which is when it gets really bad.  For a long time one of Germany’s major chain of stores selling perfume used the slogan “come in and find out” to entice customers to come into the store and find out what great offerings await them inside.

This phrase has two major issues: firstly, one would never use it in English. “Find out” doesn’t stand by itself, it would need to be followed by a “what”, something that we are supposed to find out. Find out how great/cheap/well-stocked/exclusive/whatever we are.  But “find out” alone leaves me puzzled and unsatisfied.

Secondly the Germans overwhelmingly misinterpreted the sentence to mean “come in and then find a way to leave again”. The “find out” was translated literally to “herausfinden” which can mean discover but it can also mean “find your way out” – like out of a scary dark forest or a maze.  Not exactly what the message was supposed to be.

So, please, big retail store, car maker, pharma company next time you want a cool sounding English slogan ask me first.  I can fix it and save you a lot of confusion and embarrassment.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: