We may be hope­less at at­tempt­ing for­eign­ers’ lan­guages but, says MARK MA­SON, isn’t it re­ally funny how bad they are when they try ours?

The Oldie - - NEWS - ‘Ut­terly Lost in Trans­la­tion’ by Char­lie Cro­ker (Mark Ma­son’s pseu­do­nym) is pub­lished by John Blake.

Mark Ma­son on funny trans­la­tions

SEV­ERAL years ago, some­one told me about a leaflet is­sued by a car-hire com­pany in Ja­pan. It told you how to drive in the coun­try and in­cluded the in­struc­tion: ‘When pas­sen­ger of foot heave in sight, too­tle the horn. Trum­pet him melo­di­ously at first, but if he still ob­sta­cles your pas­sage, then too­tle him with vigour.’ Not long af­ter this I found my­self on a ferry to the Span­ish is­land of La Gomera. Look­ing at my ticket I no­ticed the words: ‘Keep this ticket up the end of your trip.’ I found my­self think­ing: ‘There could be a book in this…’

For a na­tion that makes al­most no ef­fort to speak any­one else’s lan­guage, we Brits are might­ily amused when the rest of the world comes a crop­per with ours. But you can’t deny it – there is some­thing very funny about a menu in Prague ren­der­ing ‘sliced peaches’ as ‘peaches from the ex­e­cu­tion’. Elec­tric wire-cut­ters from China that come with a leaflet say­ing: ‘Be­fore use, please read this in­struc­tion for god’s sake.’ The ho­tel in France that dis­plays the no­tice: ‘Dear Cus­tomers, in or­der to re­spect the touch­i­ness of each one, we are ask­ing you to wear your bra at the swim­ming pool.’

As that Czech ex­am­ple shows, res­tau­rants are fer­tile ground for this sort of thing. From the waiter in Cyprus who asked ‘Would you like your eggs sprin­kled?’ to the bar in Rome that of­fered ‘Jack De­nials’, it’s a won­der we ever eat or drink any­thing while over­seas. Some of the en­tries defy ex­pla­na­tion: ‘fish on the eyelid’ in Greece, for ex­am­ple, or ‘sad­dle of rab­bit in a vor­tex sheet’ (Aus­tria). With oth­ers you can see how the er­ror oc­curred. The French word ‘av­o­cat’ means both ‘lawyer’ and ‘av­o­cado’, so you of­ten en­counter ‘half a lawyer with prawns’. What­ever the ex­pla­na­tion, some of th­ese dishes verge on po­etry. The same restau­rant in Madrid boasts ‘lan­guage of cow carpac­cio’, ‘gypsy choco­late arm’ and ‘cold cof­fee mouse with old ron’. Din­ers in Am­s­ter­dam are treated to ‘ap­ple pie with wiped cream’.

My ini­tial thought was cor­rect: there was in­deed a book in this, and it did so well there have been two more. Peo­ple are al­ways email­ing to re­late longtrea­sured fam­ily favourites. The no­tice at Ban­ga­lore train sta­tion: ‘Tick­et­less trav­eller heavy penalty awaits.’ The sign on an out-of-or­der ma­chine in Paris: ‘Please ex­cuse us for the caused em­bar­rass­ment.’ The in­struc­tions with a packet of plant bulbs from Hol­land: ‘Stand six inches apart and make lib­eral wa­ter.’

China pro­duces more than its fair share of howlers. Per­haps it’s be­cause the peo­ple there com­bine a fer­vent de­sire to please with a (per­fectly un­der­stand­able) dif­fi­culty in cop­ing with a lan­guage so dif­fer­ent from their own. One es­tab­lish­ment promised that its staff would ‘meet you and en­ter­tain you with hos­til­ity’. The ‘do not dis­turb’ lights in a Shenyang ho­tel were la­belled ‘no bother’. An­other ho­tel, apol­o­gis­ing for prob­lems with the mini­bar, wrote ‘We are ter­ri­bly sorry for bring­ing you so much in­con­ve­nient.’ A coun­ter­feit Bea­tles CD in Shang­hai re­pro­duced the cover pho­to­graph abso- lutely per­fectly, but then added the ti­tle Sergeant Peeper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In fact, the Far East as a whole punches well above its weight. When the Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury vis­ited Ja­pan, the or­der of ser­vice at one church read: ‘Af­ter the singing of the next hymn the Arch­bishop will give the con­gre­ga­tion a brief mas­sage.’ Some Tai­wanese sham­poo was la­belled: ‘Use re­peat­edly for se­vere dam­age.’ A tem­ple in Bangkok warned: ‘It is for­bid­den to en­ter a woman even a for­eigner if dressed as a man.’

‘Pro­tec­tive mea­sures is been ap­plied to sat­isfy out striv­ing cos­tumer needs’

Since the first book came out, a new source of ma­te­rial has ap­peared: the spam email. It’s amaz­ing how much ef­fort th­ese fraud­sters will put into fak­ing ex­actly the right cor­po­rate logo or web­site ad­dress, only to give the game away with some com­i­cally in­ept English. Say what you like about the Natwest, they’d never send you a mes­sage ad­vis­ing that ‘pro­tec­tive mea­sures is been ap­plied to sat­isfy out striv­ing cos­tumer needs’. And if seek­ing med­i­cal ad­vice, would you re­ally trust some­one who asked: ‘Does your health is not per­fect? Have ex­cess weight and your cock peek it into a bed?’

But to re­as­sure the in­hab­i­tants of Abroad that we’re laugh­ing with them not at them, let us re­mem­ber that here in Bri­tain we’re per­fectly ca­pa­ble of this type of mis­take our­selves. There is a restau­rant in Stock­port of­fer­ing ‘potato wages’. An Ox­ford ho­tel sup­plies its guests with ‘shav­ing kits, sewing kits and san­ity nap­kins’. Mean­while a win­dow cleaner in Suf­folk will tackle ‘Res­i­den­tial win­dows, Shop win­dows, Of­fice win­dows and Con­ser­va­tives’.

‘We should do this again, some time, ex­cept with dif­fer­ent peo­ple’

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