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photo from Wikimedia

Translation is the other side of a tapestry—Cervantes

Last week I had a landscaper come in to mulch the hillside garden. It’s a 45-degree, uphill angle that requires young, strong legs. Something I no longer have. Because rain was predicted the landscaper hired a couple of Indian day labors, one who spoke little to no English.

After they had begun dumping mulch on the hillside I remembered I had a hose watering system laid out on the ground. I went to one of the young American guys on the job and told him about the hoses and sprinkler system, requesting that they not bury the system, but lift the hoses and sprinklers and put the mulch beneath them.

A little while later I went out to check on the progress and discovered that the northmost section of hoses had been pulled out-of-place and coiled on the hillside. Immediately I requested, again, that they not remove the hoses and sprinklers.

“Tell them to lift them up, in place, and put the mulch beneath the hoses and sprinklers,” I said.  “They are laid on the hill in specific spots to water certain plants and need to stay where they are.”

I was assured the problem would be corrected, and the landscaper went to the Indian worker who spoke English, relayed my instructions, and told him to tell the other worker.

Satisfied I had made myself clear, I went back to my gardening chores. A bit later, while getting a drink from the kitchen, I looked out the back window at the hillside. The remaining hoses and sprinkler heads hung like green snakes from the tree branches and bushes, near their original locations, but nowhere near what I had asked—at least what I thought I asked. My instructions had been lost in the translation. My husband I spent the next week reworking the watering system and made the best of their error by adding new lines.

The incident got me wondering about translation errors and I did a Google search. Here are a few other translation mishaps that I found interesting and funny.

Ad Slogans that missed the mark

  • In China the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” was translated as “eat your fingers off.”
  • In Taiwan, the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” was translated as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”
  • The Parker Pen ballpoint marketing ads in Mexico were supposed to say, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word “embarazar” meant embarrass. Instead the ads said, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”

Mistranslated Signs

  • Copenhagen airlineWe take your bags and send them in all directions
  • Budapest Zoo— Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.
  • Hong Kong tailor’s shopLadies may have a fit upstairs
  • Athens hotelVisitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11am daily
  • Tokyo shopOur nylons cost more than common but they are better for the long run

My little landscaping problem showed me, once again, the importance of words. As Mark Twain once said, The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug. Boy, did I see that firsthand!

Have you ever seen the other side of the tapestry when communicating with someone who wasn’t a native speaker of English? Was it funny, frustrating, or just annoying?

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