Archive for Lost in translation

A meal of little shovels

At an excellent restaurant in Leipzig last night the server quickly identified me as an Auslander whose German might not be up to grasping every nuance of the menu, so I was given an English menu as well. (It was a bit humiliating, like having a bib tied round my neck. I have tried to explain elsewhere why my knowledge of German is so shamefully thin and undeveloped despite my having once spent 18 months living in the country.) On the English menu was a dish at which I raised a native-speaking eyebrow: Frankish little shovels, it said. And since there is no limit to my dedication as a linguistic scientist, I ordered the dish just to see what these little shovels were like.

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The foreign carrot regime problem

English translation of the title of a Japanese book for sale on Amazon:

Japanese lost sight of "nation" – the essence of foreign carrot regime proble

From the Japanese version the book seems to be a collection of excerpts from mostly right-wing / ultra-nationalistc writers (but why is the Japanese Communist Party there?).

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Live striped bass

Nathan Hopson spotted these signs in Pittsburgh:

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"SHAM POO" and "SHOWER POO"

From Mark Seidenberg (though I think that I may originally have sent it to him years ago):

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Shifty merchants with 251 secret words for trade

Lila Gleitman points out to me that in one of the slowly increasing number of articles passing round the pseudoscientific story about Yiddish originating in four villages in Turkey you can see that hallmark of non-serious language research, the X-people-have-Y-words-for-Z trope:

Putting together evidence from linguistic, history, and genetics, we concluded that the ancient Ashkenazic Jews were merchants who developed Yiddish as a secret language — with 251 words for "buy" and "sell" — to maintain their monopoly. They were known to trade in everything from fur to slaves.

You can see the article here, but don't take that as a recommendation; it looks to me like unsubstantiated drivel. Exactly 251 words for buying and selling? No examples cited, and no hint of how more than two basic words and a few random approximate synonyms could be the slightest bit useful? It looks like classic myth-repetition of the usual Eskimo-words-for-snow sort.

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(Whether) to dispose (of) or not to dispose (of)

From Florent Moncomble, a language academic in France:

My father came back recently from a trip to Japan and was intrigued by the following notice, which he found in his Tokyo hotel room one day. He gets by in English but could not make out its meaning and was wondering whether the fault lay with him or with the message — obviously the latter is the case. My interpretation is that this sign is left by the cleaning staff to apologise whenever they are unsure whether or not to dispose of (half-)used equipment such as towels and toiletries, and leave them in the room.

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About those grilled fevers…

From Steve Kass:

My brother is traveling in Portugal and posted this on Instagram. That’s all I know.


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Democracy is not chicken nuggets

Kyle Gorman stumbled upon something strange happening to the Wikipedia article on "List of blacklisted keywords in China".  The first item under "General concepts" is mínzhǔ 民主 , which means "democracy".  However, what Kyle saw there as the definition yesterday was "chicken nuggets".  After he told me about it, I went there and saw the same thing:  "chicken nuggets".

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Love heals all

Liwei Jiao sent me the following photograph of a framed picture that he bought:

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Saving Germany, one (Chinese?) meal at a time

Nathan Hopson spotted this on Facebook:


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Obama and the end of the queue

Over the past few days the British media (newspapers and BBC news programs) have been talking about a crucially linguistic argument that President Obama is being manipulated, and literally told what to say, by the UK prime minister's office. (Links seem superfluous: the Google News UK edition will give you thousands of references.) The evidence comes from a single choice of lexical item.

During the two working days Obama spent in Britain, the main news-generating event was a news conference in which he directly addressed the issue of whether the UK should remain in the European Union or leave it. A key argument for those who believe in leaving the EU (the proponents of Brexit) has been that new trade agreements could readily be set up once the country was free from the shackles of EU membership. Specifically, a trade agreement could be readily set up with the USA. Not so fast, said Obama: the USA will continue its negotiating efforts aimed at setting up a trade agreement with the whole EU, and if the UK left that grouping (the largest single market in the world) it would "be in the back of the queue" if it applied to get a special UK/US trade agreement established.

The Brexit crew jumped on the use of the word queue. Americans talk about waiting in line, not waiting in a queue or queueing up. "The back of the queue" is characteristic British English, and no American would say any such thing, they insisted. Obama's remarks must have been prepared for him by British pro-EU politicians. Are the Brexiteers right?

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Head shop

Here is a nice piece of Japanglish from Joseph Williams:


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"Please enter your cock after urinating"

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