Friday, March 1, 2013

Getting things wrong in a foreign language.....

Paul offers our weekly topic - getting things wrong in a foreign language  - 

I confess that - somewhat to my chagrin - I have not traveled anywhere that doesn't claim English as its primary language nor a destination that does not rely on American tourists' dollars for survival so the odds of my making a linguistic blunder are somewhat limited. Besides, I butcher English enough as it is.

My Spanish is sufficient  - mas cerveza por favor - y dos tacos
ditto my German - zwei Bieren bitte - once in a  galaxy far far away I was actually fluent in German and I can still tell you to perform a physically impossible feat to yourself.

So - lets take me out of the equation and speak in general terms.  Lets talk about translating the written word.  Translate a book from it's native language into another. How about translating a book written in Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek then another language.  Any new language. What are the chances something gets lost in the translation? Perhaps only a butterfly's flapping of its wings size loss but we've all heard what that can do. Languages are not static - they are incredibly nuanced.  Hoch Deutsch - as my teacher Fraulein Hartmann used to say - is very different from colloquial German. Hence translations vary. Translations bear the "bias" of the translator - and I do not mean that in a negative way at all nor am I tring to start a battle of words over the translation of the Bible - just citing it as an example of what happens when a document is translated. And who can deny the importance of the Bible as a document - whether you believe it literally, take it as a series of metaphors or somewhere in between those two.

The movie Das Boat is a great example of getting things wrong - at least if you've seen the English dubbed version. Nothing seems quite right, everything just feels odd.  But - watch it in German with subtitles and the film comes alive.  The fear of being in a metal tube underwater is palpable. Just thinking about being in a submarine during WWII frankly creeps me out thanks to Das Boat.  The translators simply did not get it right when coming up with the English version of the script.

Ever see some subtitles in a film/TV show that seem a bit off?  Same thing -  I like mysteries and there's an excellent Danish TV series - Ørnen: En krimi-odyssé (The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey) (2004) that I watched via Netflix.  They kept the native language but boy do some of the subtitles make me scratch my head - LOL.  English with a Danish mindset.  The mind boggles. And do Danes really need to see a psychiatrist that often?

Then there're regional dialects - I'm not sure how big a country has to be but I watch enough British TV to know that England has many.  Ditto here - as I discovered on a cross country drive when I wanted to pay for gas with my Diners Club card (and boy does that date me).  I asked the attendant in the West Virginia gas station if they accepted Diners Club and I got a muffled we take Donners Club. The blank stare I gave him in response was enough to irritate him sufficiently that he loudly repeated himself several times before he pointed to the door to the establishment.  The door had a series of those little decals of the cards accepted.  Yep - there it was - the Diners - ne Donners - club card was indeed accepted. Whew.  I settled the bill and quickly headed once again for civilization - aka the interstate. I'm sure the attendant was as unfairly judgmental as i was in thinking what an idiot the other was. 

So now the question is "What does it really mean?" "What did he/she really mean?"  

That's my take on getting things wrong in a foreign language.  Time to see how the other LBC folk interpreted Paul's topic.  Check out Delirious, Maxi, Maria/Gaelikaa, Maria SilverFox, Padmum, Ramana, The Old Fossil &  Will Knott.


  1. Louie Louie makes the point loud and very unclear. I had to go to lyrics to decipher!

    You should be in India to feel like a foreigner within the country. According to the most recent census, 29 'languages' have more than a million native speakers, 60 have more than 100,000 and 122 have more than 10,000 native speakers.

    You want to swap places?

    1. India is the definition of melting pot. A culinary tour would be a better idea than a swap though.

    2. Yes, for the two of us, that is the way to go.

  2. Ha ha, you've made a good point. We mess up our own language plenty! lol

  3. For some reason your post triggered an incident that happened years ago. I was in Portugal and sat with a elderly woman who talked for about an hour. I couldn't understand a word she said but left with the feeling that she was happy someone had listened to her.
    blessings ~ maxi

  4. Could you buy kebabs with that Donners Club card?