Word Nerd: The perils of translation

23 May


Whenever we speak with someone whose native language or culture is different from ours, we are essentially translating. Good translation requires much more than a vocabulary – it takes a nuanced understanding of both language and culture. Japanese, for instance, has different verbs for the same action, and using a less respectful verb in a context that requires a more respectful one could be considered insulting. In the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! the late Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounted his attempt to learn Japanese: “Three or four different words for one idea, because when I’m doing it, it’s miserable; when you’re doing it, it’s elegant.”

Recently, BBC journalist Rupert Wingfield-Hayes found that his English words had upset North Koreans who spoke English, because English is not the same language everywhere. Wingfield-Hayes was in Pyongyang, covering the visit of some Nobel laureates. After the assignment, he was waiting to catch his flight out, when he was suddenly whisked off to a hotel where a group of officials accused him of the “serious crime” of “defaming” North Korea. As evidence, they cited articles he had written. In one, for example, he had referred to a “grim-faced” customs officer “barking” questions at him. Later he wrote, “They had taken ‘grim-faced’ to mean ‘ugly’, and the use of the word ‘barks’ as an indication that I thought they [Korean people] sounded like dogs.” Wingfield-Hayes was detained and interrogated for 10 hours, and then expelled. If that sounds bad, well, it could have been worse.

Translation goof-ups are part of the experience of studying abroad, though of course they generally lead to only amusement, and not interrogation. Here are some common things we Indians say that sound odd to English-speakers in other parts of the world.

Be online: In American or British English, this means someone is using the internet. In India, many people say “please be online” when they want you to not hang up the phone. When someone is “on the line”, they’re connected to you by phone. For instance, you might take a call and then pass on the phone to your friend saying, “Jon is on the line, and wants to ask you something”.

Chewing my brain/eating my head: In some cultures, this behavior is associated with zombies. In India, it’s often a literal translation of a Hindi expression which means that someone is pestering or nagging you.

Put up: In India, we often say “Where do you put up?” when we want to know where someone lives. But in the US or UK, “put up” means “tolerate” (as in “We have no choice but to put up with our obnoxious neighbor”).  “Put up” can also mean to move something to a higher position (your hands, your hair, a poster), to stage something (play, show), to deposit or stake (money for investment), or to stay for a very short time (a night in a hotel). If you want to know where someone’s home is, just ask where they live!

Tissue: In cultures that use paper for a lot of things, specific words refer to specific types of paper. In India, we use “tissue” as a catch-all. In the US, “tissue” is toilet paper (supermarkets often coyly call this “bath tissue”) or the Kleenex that you need when you have a runny nose. The thin, crinkly paper used to line gift boxes is “tissue paper”. The roll of thicker paper used to wipe the kitchen counter is “paper towels”. The folded squares of paper stacked on tables in diners and cafes are “paper napkins”.

Above: A shop in Haridwar (photo by Chris Conway & Hilleary Osheroff, used under CC BY 2.0 licence)

Above: A shop in Haridwar (photo by Chris Conway & Hilleary Osheroff, used under CC BY 2.0 licence)

STD: In India, this refers to a phone service that lets you bypass an operator when calling from one city to another. (Yes, there was a time when we could not make calls directly in India, because they were very expensive, and the phone company feared that people would run up bills they couldn’t pay.) We still refer to long-distance calling as “STD”. But in the US and some other countries, “STD” stands for “sexually transmitted disease”. When you’re setting up your new home as an international student, you’re probably better off not asking anyone how you can get STD.

Got a funny translation story to share? Leave a comment below, or mail us at editor@braingainmag.com!

By: Uma Asher

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