Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lost in Translation

Tripping Over Our Own Ideas

Most of us know that certain messages lose their meaning in translation.

If you try to explain a joke or a witty remark to someone, it stops being funny the instant you try.

Thud. Strike out.

Take a sip of wine, move along and try it on the next bunch of folks at the party. Better yet, don't risk it. The moment has evaporated.


The Tower of Babel is the architectural hubris of King Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar II. If they built a tower that could reach Heaven, it would be easy to drop in, or drop up, or drop over.

According to Biblical legend, God considered this a pretty obnoxious way to gain entrance. All of the people who were working on that structure spoke the same language. By destroying the Tower of Babel, all the people were scattered, woke up speaking in different tongues, and could not understand one another. As a metaphor that describes any difficulties we all have in mutual understanding, the idea is huge.

Language Dangers~Red Alert

Idioms contain such richness of language, yet don’t translate into a sensible message from one culture to another. You try to explain whether "the icing on the cake" means an extra good thing added onto a good thing, or whether it's the last straw. Now explain "the last straw."

When Jimmy Carter was President he was assigned someone to translate during his trip to Poland, who apparently had a very poor understanding of the language.

The poor quasi-linguist wound up announcing to the official delegation his understanding of what the President was saying, which came out something like, “I promise to support your overcoats. You have engaged our potatoes with hope.” (Don't quote me.)

Babel Fish

What a cool web site. It translates things for you. Previously it featured only the Romance Languages, German, and Russian. Now two kinds of Chinese are covered here, as well as Korean and Japanese. but what a great place to start. Sorry, Finns. Hungarians are on hold.

You can use it to translate a web page written in a language other than your own, that might hold the very thing you are looking for in your quest for arcane knowledge.

Let’s say you are fresh out, and need to know where the really good leiderhosen can be purchased, or you need a beret from the source, so you must learn what’s going on with the Basques these days. Bookmark Babel Fish, and you can find out. Babelfish can't 'do' Basque, but most speak Spanish or French as well.

ALSO you can type something in English into the text box and........
Babblebabble Kazam! it will appear in the language of your choice.

For fun or for caution, have it translate right back to English so you can see if there are any surprising changes.

Example: Starving writer looking for European magazines who pay big bucks for humorous columns about the American scene and culture.

In Spanish: Programa de escritura muerto de hambre que busca los compartimientos europeos que pagan los bucks grandes columnas chistosas sobre la escena y la cultura americanas.

Back to English: Program of hunger writing died that looks for the European compartments that great chistosas? columns pay bucks on the American scene and the culture.

Example: Please don't think all Americans thought Freedom Fries were a good idea. And the comment about "cheese eating surrender monkeys" makes most of us wince.

In French: Svp ne pensez pas que toutes les fritures de liberté de pensée d'Américains étaient une bonne idée. Et le commentaire au sujet "fromage des marques mangeant de reddition singes" plus de nous crispation.

Back to English: Please do not think that all the cracklings of freedom of American thought were a good idea. And the comment on the subject "cheese of the marks eating of rendering monkeys" more us crispation.

There, now. Wasn’t that educational?

No comments: