ENGLISH MANGLED HERE
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?
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’