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A mistranslation that could have provoked a crowd’s animal instincts

29 march 2013, 17:02
1

I love translation gaffes.

Some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had have come from reading a Web site called www.engrish.com.

You’ll notice that the name of the site is not english.com but engrish.com.

That’s because the site originally was devoted to funny examples of how some Japanese mangle English.

If you’ve ever been to Japan, you know that a lot of Japanese can’t pronounce the letter “l.” So English comes out Engrish.

Engrish.com began by serving up hilarious examples of fractured English in signs, menus, newspaper ads and other written materials produced in Japan.

And the site still has many Japanese examples, although its fare has been expanded to include mangled English from China and other countries.

In that sense, it’s become an equal opportunity fractured-translations site rather than just a site singling out the Japanese.

Let me take a moment to say that I fell in love with Japan during my nine years as a journalist there, so I don’t laugh at www.engrish.com in a mean-spirited way.

I know how I mangle other languages when I try to speak or write them, so I’m sympathetic with anyone who makes a translation mistake.

Still, translation mistakes can be so hilarious that I’m always on the lookout for them.

And Chevron’s Jay Johnson recently told me one of the best I’ve heard in a long time.

I met Jay, who is the president of Chevron’s Europe, Eurasia and Middle East Exploration & Production operations, at a Nazarbayev Center conference last year that was celebrating 20 years of U.S.-Kazakhstan relations.

At lunch he told his tablemates about a party that Chevron employees in Almaty threw for a departing American.

As is the custom, many Kazakh employees raised a glass to toast the departee.

Good toasts seem to be part of the Kazakh blood – like horseback riding, falconry and fabulous singing and dancing.

So when it came time for the departee to respond to the salutes, he started by saying how excellent the toasts had been.

His key words of praise were: “Kazakhs are so eloquent.”

But the translator didn’t hear it right.

She translated it into Russian as: “Kazakhs are elephants.”

The crowd was stunned – and there was a second or two of silence, Jay said.

Before the Kazakhs could construe the message as an insult and become perturbed, a bilingual young man jumped in. No, no, no – there was a mistranslation, he said. Then he explained what the translator SHOULD have said.

The crowd responded with chortling, maintaining the conviviality of the evening.

Better a group of laughing hyenas than stampeding elephants any time, right?

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If any of you have a funny mistranslation story, please pass it on so I can share it with readers. You can either post it as a comment to this blog, or send it to my email address, japanbuff@gmail.com. Thanks.


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