Translation is not an exact science. Think about all the sayings we have in English that wouldn’t make sense to a foreign person who took them literally…
“Spend a penny” “Mad as a box of frogs” “Spanner in the works”
When translations go wrong the effects can be disastrous. A missed word, or even a single erroneous letter, can change the meaning of a sentence completely. I love reading French menus the staff have translated into English for this reason. “Grandmother’s balls with pistachio” or “warm goat dung on toast” anyone? You’d have thought a ski resort press office would have forked out for a proper translator, but apparently not – leading to my favourite translation mistake so far. Sainte Foy’s Winter 2016 English press pack had the resort’s tagline as:
The Sainte Foy spirit will impregnate you. Ski differently. You will never be the same.
If that isn’t doesn’t sound like a threat I don’t know what does. And, bless them, that was how they were trying to tempt English people to book a holiday in the resort.
Lots of the press releases I get from French organisations talk extensively about “sensations” and “vibrations”. As it turns out they’re not all selling sex toys, these are just the words the French use to portray something as exciting.
I went into one of my advertiser’s bars cheerily offering him more magazines, wondering why he looked at me strangely. It turned out I’d got the word for “more” slightly wrong and skewed my sentence so that I basically shouted “I’m not giving you any more magazines” at him. Several of my advertisers think I’m a lesbian because I keep muddling up the words for boyfriend and girlfriend – ‘cop-een’ or ‘cop-an’ – and just plumping for either.
A friend who’s French is not fluent but who works in an all-French job has had to laugh off some brilliant bloopers. Sweltering in the canteen she exclaimed “phew, je suis chaud!” telling all the men around her she was horny, rather than just warm as she intended. Accidentally setting something on fire, she cried “fou, fou” – accusing everyone nearby of being fools, rather than informing them of a fire (“feu”).
Even Steve, who’s almost fluent, gets it wrong. He had an argument with a shop worker who seemed to be insisting there was someone at the customer services desk despite him having been there and there clearly wasn’t. But it turns out that when the French say “the person is not there” they don’t bother to say the “not”, which threw Steve, so it turned out they’d been shouting the same thing at each other in agreement there was no-one there. When he’s asked for a ‘pipe’ thinking it meant either pipe, in the builder’s merchant, or a straw in a bar, he’s had some odd reactions. Later he found out ‘pipe’ is actually the French term for ‘blow job’.
When you try to fit into a different culture, an ability to laugh at yourself is vital.