Friday, July 21, 2006

Lost in translation

If you ever come across a copy of the book English as She Is Spoke, grab it with both hands and don't let go. It's probably one of the funniest books I've ever read -- and it wasn't even meant to be funny! It's a 19th-century publication ascribed to Pedro Carolino, who wanted to do something to help Portuguese students learn English. A noble goal, certainly. The problem was that Carolino himself did not speak English and he didn't have a Portuguese-English dictionary to help him out. So what this enterprising man did was to use a Portuguese-French dictionary and then a French-English dictionary. Portuguese-->French-->English. The result was, of course, hilarious.

For instance:
"The walls have hearsay."
"These are the dishes whose you must be and to abstain."
"Taste us rather that liquor, it is good for the stomach."
"I did think him Englishman."
"That pond it seems to me many multiplied of fishes. Let us amuse rather to the fishing."
"Silence! There is a superb perch! Give me quick the rod. Ah! There it is. It is a lamprey."
"You mistake you, it is a frog! Dip again it in the water."

Now, English isn't my primary language, but I like to think I'm fluent enough and that I can use it passably well in oral and written communication. I grew up watching Sesame Street (I still think lower case n is one heck of a touching love song) and the Electric Company (it's a word, it's a plan, it's Letter Man!). I remember being stopped by a white gentleman (and I use that word loosely) many years ago. This guy was having trouble finding a certain restaurant and needed help on how to get there. I would've been happy to be of service if only he didn't go about asking for assistance in a very stupid and condescending kind of way.

Guy: Excuse me...
Me: Yes? (friendly smile)
Guy: (speaking really slowly) You (pointing to me) know how go... to... Max's restaurant? (makes a gesture like he's eating)
Me: (left eyebrow disappearing into my hairline)

I was really, really tempted to give this arrogant bastard the wrong directions and take some pleasure in causing him to lose his way. But I restrained myself -- I'm a good girl (or I try to be; I don't always give in to schadenfreude) and gave him the directions he needed. But would it have killed him to ask "Do you speak English?" first? He did thank me for my help, though, to his credit.

And for the record, I'm NOT saying that all Westerners are arrogant bastards, oh no no no no. Take for instance the people featured in Expat Interviews. Most of them are nice folks. These expats in Germany, China, Japan, France, Thailand, etc., are either fluent in the local language or are at least making an effort to learn it. Plus, they're respectful of the local culture and the people. (And the person who runs the site is quite terrific too, btw!)

Of course, if you're a tourist, you don't have to learn the language of the country you're visiting. But you don't have to make a jackass of yourself, either -- by assuming that the woman you stop in the street for directions doesn't speak English...just because she doesn't look like she's a member of the local elite.


whoami123 said...


We work like a horse.
We eat like a pig.
We like to play chicken.
You can get someone's goat.
We can be as slippery as a snake.
We get dog tired.
We can be as quiet as a mouse.
We can be as quick as a cat.
Some of us are as strong as an ox.
People try to buffalo others.
Some are as ugly as a toad.
We can be as gentle as a lamb.
Sometimes we are as happy as a lark.
Some of us drink like a fish.
We can be as proud as a peacock.
A few of us are as hairy as a gorilla.
You can get a frog in your throat.
We can be a lone wolf.
But I'm having a whale of a time!

You have a riveting web log
and undoubtedly must have
atypical & quiescent potential
for your intended readership.
May I suggest that you do
everything in your power to
honor your encyclopedic/omniscient
Designer/Architect as well
as your revering audience.
As soon as we acknowledge
this Supreme Designer/Architect,
Who has erected the beauteous
fabric of the universe, our minds
must necessarily be ravished with
wonder at this infinate goodness,
wisdom and power.

Please remember to never
restrict anyone's opportunities
for ascertaining uninterrupted
existence for their quintessence.

There is a time for everything,
a season for every activity
under heaven. A time to be
born and a time to die. A
time to plant and a time to
harvest. A time to kill and
a time to heal. A time to
tear down and a time to
rebuild. A time to cry and
a time to laugh. A time to
grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones
and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a
time to turn away. A time to
search and a time to lose.
A time to keep and a time to
throw away. A time to tear
and a time to mend. A time
to be quiet and a time to
speak up. A time to love
and a time to hate. A time
for war and a time for peace.

Best wishes for continued ascendancy,
Dr. Whoami

P.S. One thing of which I am sure is
that the common culture of my youth
is gone for good. It was hollowed out
by the rise of ethnic "identity politics,"
then splintered beyond hope of repair
by the emergence of the web-based
technologies that so maximized and
facilitated cultural choice as to make
the broad-based offerings of the old
mass media look bland and unchallenging
by comparison."

Tainted Female said...

You know Lizza...

I had my mom bring a Sesame Street DVD for my son, back from her last vacation. It wasn't as entertaining as I remember it?!

Moving on, you said "almost" all the people from Expat interviews were good people. I want to know who isn't part of that almost! lol...

Yes, tourists make a fool of themselves when it comes to language. In the UAE, I've had multiple Russian tourists walk up to me and start speaking their native language as if I understand every single word, based simply on my blond hair and green eyes.

Not exactly the same thing, but close enough. lol.

Lizza said...

You're right, Tainted.

Some parts of Sesame Street aren't as entertaining...but some of them still manage to bring me to way back when. :-)

Shhh, I'm not naming names, girl. But this much I can tell you -- you're definitely among the nicest ones!

If another tourist comes up to you and makes a similar mistake, you could just give 'em the finger. Now that's something that transcends language barriers! lol

Lizza said...


Thanks for dropping by! :-)

Tainted Female said...

I'm nice? LOL! That's a first!

And no.. when the tourists start talking funny languages at me... I try my hardest to repeat them while adding a few tainted words... "Mush-a-too-loi? Tatakono!"

Or something along those lines! Makes for more entertainment.

Lizza said...

LOL @ Tainted!

Benjie Ordonez said...

trivia: did you know that morgan freeman starred in the Electric Company?

moving on, i wouldn't have hesitated to give both middle fingers (i'd include my toes if i could).

Lizza said...


Now that you mention it, I do remember Morgan Freeman in the Electric Company!

Hahaha @ the idea of flipping the bird using your toes!