Posts tagged ‘translation’

June 30, 2015


The other day we took a stroll through the center of the historic German town we currently live in when I stopped in my tracks.  Right in front of us was a new store I had never seen before – this might be a bit strange in such a small town but then, things change quickly and seeing  new store normally doesn’t stop me in my tracks – unless, of course, it is an Antique Store, or better yet some sort of indoor flea market type store.  With the town rapidly gentrifying tit was neither.

Friking  - a questionable name choice and an similalrly questionable slogan (c) Tina Baumgartner

Friking – a questionable name choice and an similalrly questionable slogan
(c) Tina Baumgartner

What stopped me in my tracks was the name.  The store – which sells men’s fashion – is called “Friking” – seriously? Friking? The word doesn’t mean anything in German and might be a name.  In any case it is pronounced slightly differently from the English “freaking” – but only ever so slightly.

Now, a German store owner might be forgiven for not knowing that Friking is way too close for comfort to “freaking” if they didn’t make a point of using an English slogan right under that name.  But not only that, they use a slogan that makes no sense whatsoever. The slogan, right there outside the store says “you are in the shop”

Ehm, what?  I am clearly not in the shop, I am outside looking at it in disbelief.  And even if I was in the shop, what would the slogan tell me?  I would know I am in the shop, then, I needn’t be told. I  tried to make sense of this by translating it literally into German, but it doesn’t make sense in that language either, so it isn’t a case of literally translated idiom.  Maybe the webpage holds a clue as it is a Spanish webpage ending on .es – so some Spanish store using a bad English slogan in Germany?  The headache of it all!

Another point, maybe an US vs. UK English point is the use of “shop”.  In US English one would say store rather than shop, a shop has the connotation of a small place where often services are performed such as body shop (car repair), barber shop to get a shave (do shops where people are getting shaved still exist?)

I am still scratching my head over the fact that somebody spends lots of money on merchandize, the very expensive rents in my quickly gentrifying little town, hires sales people etc. etc – but can’t be bothered to ask somebody fluent in English something along the lines of “hi, buddy, help me out here.  Does this slogan make sense?” This is a friking mess, really.

June 14, 2015

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.


May 3, 2011

Things I might never learn

There are some things that are very unintuitive and hard to learn in another language.  Maybe the things that are difficult to learn are individual – maybe not.  I’ll have to ask around.

For me something that I probably will never learn are names of bird and fish.  With fish, my main problem is with the critters one eats.  I know what a shark looks like, I even know the Spanish word for shark.  I can also handle salmon and tuna with bravado –  but as soon it gets much more specific I have to pass.  I eat Mahi Mahi and striped bass, talapia, sole and haddock without any idea what these things are and how they are called in German.  Same for birds – but there I know the few ones one eats – but the rest: forget it.

Let's make it even more complicated and throw in some French, pic:

On a day to day basis this isn’t a real issue – I am not a bird watcher so who cares what that little fluffy looking birdie over there is called.  Where it really matters and I fall woefully short is when it comes to different kinds of meat.  Here I am with my husbands ultimate Austrian cookbook in hand in the meat section at the supermarket puzzling whether I should get a Porterhouse steak, or a skirt steak, which one is better and which one translates most accurately into what the recipe calls for.

Unfortunately, the people working at the local supermarket are no help.  I learned that the hard way when one day I waltzed in and after some searching asked where the veal was.  The  guy working the meat counter looked at me with a puzzled expression “veal, veal …. hmm …. that’s baby cow, right?”

So I keep puzzling and buying the wrong stuff and inventing recipes around the wrong piece of meat.  Helps my creativity.  Got to look at the bright side, right?  That’s a very American thing to do.

January 24, 2011

German words

There are a few German words that have been adopted in the English language and have become “loan words”.  I’ll write about the most interesting ones of them in a few blog posts going forward.

perfect scenario for schadenfreude:

Let’s start with Schadenfreude.  Schadefreude is when somebody takes pleasure in somebody else’s misfortune.  The word derives from Schaden which means adversity, harm, and a bunch of other unpleasant negative things.   Freude means joy, delight, elation.

Some sources define Schadenfreude as “malicious joy” but that is overreaching somewhat.  There certainly can be malicious aspects to Schadenfreude, where it borders on the pathological but more often Schadenfreude is what one experiences when watching an episode of Tom and Jerry or some other comic where one character or another gets whacked over the head, somebody spilling a glass of coke on their white pants, or falling into the pool in an evening dress.

Though few languages other than German seem to have a specific word for Schadenfreude the concept seems rather universal, that’s why the word has become used in other languages as well.

December 23, 2010

Funny word – Smorgasbord

it looks Scandinavian and it is – only that in Swedish this word would be spelled like so: Smörgåsbord

A real smorgasbord -yum! pic:

In Sweden a Smörgåsbord is a meal served buffet-style with many dishes of various types of foods on a table.  Smörgåsbord came to the new world and was transformed into  Smorgasbord in 1939 when it was served in the Swedish pavilion during the New York World fair.

Since then the word has considerably broadened its meaning in English and now is used to describe a large heterogeneous mixture of almost anything.   Here are a couple of examples:

Tourist after a visit in an all-inclusive resort: “Every day we could choose from a smorgasbord of different activities.  It was great.”

HR person at a company meeting: “as you can see, we offer a smorgasbord of different benefits for you to choose from.”

Smorgasboard is one of the few Swedish words that have found their way – minus a few dots and circles – into the English language.