Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Lost in translation


I will be the first one to admit that I do not have an affinity for learning other languages. Perhaps it is because learning English took it all out of me. Oh, I took two years of German in high school and a semester in college.  But beyond telling some one to "listen and repeat," counting to ten and asking you if you'd like to drink lemonade, nothing stuck. Oh, and I can say, "durch, für, gegen, ohne, um" (which means "by, for, up, to, without"). A group of us from Herr Haddock's German class turned it into a cheer at Basketball games for some reason.

I am not even sure why I tried to learn German. I've never been to Germany and I don't have a burning desire to go to Germany. I have, however, spent a great deal of time in Spanish speaking countries, so it would have been more productive to me to try and learn Spanish. Though I can also count to ten in Spanish, ask where the men's room is and order more beer.  And I didn't have to spend three years in a class room learning it.

It's not that I wouldn't love to be fluent in another language. I envy people who have mastered more than one language. It's just that I was never very good at diagramming sentences and grammar in English so trying to make the leap to grammar in another language was just too much. Plus I could never get the hang of formal and informal pronouns.


Online translators have helped bridge the gap between your native tongue and another person's native tongue. But they still aren't perfect. For example I translated this sentence from a post I'd made about speaking other languages back in 2008:

"English is blah. Americans got the short end of the stick when they got stuck with English by default because of colonization. It is not an exciting language. Perhaps that is why we mumble so much."

Here's what the German translator cranked out:

" Englisch ist blah. Amerikaner haben das kurze Ende des Stocks, wenn sie wegen der Kolonisierung standardmäßig mit Englisch stecken geblieben sind. Es ist keine aufregende Sprache. Vielleicht murmeln wir deshalb so viel."

And here's what I got when I translated it back to English:

"English is blah. Americans have the short end of the cane when they get stuck with English by default because of colonization. It is not an exciting language. Maybe that's why we mumble so much."

Actually, that is pretty good. Other than not having a word for "blah" and changing "stick" to "cane," it pretty much captured it. But it didn't capture the idiom of getting the short end of the stick. So it probably doesn't totally make sense to a German person.

Next I tried a Spanish translator and got this:

"Inglés es bla. Los estadounidenses obtuvieron el extremo corto cuando se quedaron atrapados en el inglés por defecto debido a la colonización. No es un lenguaje emocionante. Quizás es por eso que murmuramos mucho."

And back to English:

"English is blah. The Americans got the short end when they were trapped in English by default due to colonization. It is not an exciting language. Maybe that's why we mutter a lot."

Ok, we got the "blah" but lost the stick. And instead of mumbling, we got "mutter." And instead of getting stuck with English, we get "trapped" with it. Not quite an exact translation. As a marketing person, I realize how difficult it is to translate advertising copy into another language and have the same impact (without insulting someone).

I can only imagine how most of my blog post translate to other languages. I imagine there are many non-English people shaking their heads and saying, "That's Greek to me."

BTW, when translated to Greek my original text comes out like this:

" Τα αγγλικά είναι blah. Οι Αμερικανοί πήραν το κοντό άκρο του ραβδιού όταν έμειναν κολλημένοι με τα αγγλικά από προεπιλογή εξαιτίας του αποικισμού. Δεν είναι μια συναρπαστική γλώσσα. Ίσως αυτός είναι ο λόγος που γελοιοποιούμε τόσο πολύ."

And it translates back like this:

"English is blah. The Americans took the short edge of the stick when stuck with English by default because of colonization. It's not an exciting language. Perhaps this is the reason we ridicule so much."

I suppose my posts aren't Greek to Greeks.

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