The mountain dew is closed

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It is not just the disaster of Chinese-English translation that provides us with source material for the huge fund of hilariously inappropriate texts that we tag with Lost in Translation here on Language Log. Spanish provides them too. And here is one from Italian. What could possibly be the explanation for a failure as gross as translating RIFUGIO ("refuge") by the words "MOUNTAIN DEW"? What did they mean to put? Coca-Cola? Dr. Pepper?

It seems almost a shame to solve the mystery, yet I believe I can. And just as when one explains a conjuring trick, it's a total let-down. But this is Language Log: we aim to inform, not just to titillate. Not that there's anything wrong with that—in a well-balanced life there should be some titillation as well. If you would prefer titillation to information right now, try to work out the source of the error for yourself before you read on.

The Rifugio Luigi Gorza is a spectacularly sited ski chalet up a mountain near Portavescovo and Arabba in the Dolomites. They serve hot drinks and (this being the 21st century) provide free wireless Internet access. I believe that when the sign about its being closed in summertime was translated into English, the choice made from the array of senses that dictionaries record for rifugio was to translate it as "mountain den" instead of "mountain refuge". Tana would be a closer translation for "den", but rifugio is also commonly listed.

So somebody wrote down "MOUNTAIN DEN" in caps on a piece of paper, and the signmaker misread the last capital N as a W, and put "DEW" instead of "DEN", and nobody noticed. The sign should read: "The Luigi Gorza Refuge near Portavescovo is closed during the summer."

Sorry to ruin it for you, but I think that is probably the etiology of this particular signwriting error. (Not quite as arcane or fascinating as the stuff by Victor Mair, is it?)

Thanks to Marion Owen for sending the picture and asking about the mistranslation.


Postscript: Professor D. Robert Ladd has pointed out to me another possible explanation that is more direct: at the Word Reference online dictionary site you can clearly see that "mountain dew" has been entered as the sole English translation for the phrase rifugio montano ("mountain refuge"). The signmakers could have simply drawn their mistranslation from that.

People are far too trusting of online translation tools.

I am still inclined to think, though, that the origin of that mistranslation must lie in either bad handwriting recognition or frequency-driven typing error. DEN and DEW look too temptingly similar to each other to be reliably kept apart when read by people who speak another language. And on top of that (not mentioned above), mountain dew is a common collocation while mountain den is not: numbers of raw Google hits cannot be trusted, of course, but for what it's worth, "mountain dew" (as a phrase) gets 3.24 million estimated hits where "mountain den" gets only 18,000.

Bob Ladd continues to think, however, that everything I just said is highly implausible. He writes to me:

A general reason is that Italian signmakers are unlikely to have any reason to be influenced by the relative frequency of "mountain dew" and "mountain den", because they wouldn't even know what the words meant. But a more specific reason is that W isn't regarded as an Italian letter (the end of the alphabet goes straight from V to Z) and when it's handwritten, it's invariably written as two superimposed and overlapping capital Vs. The most common context for this is as an abbreviation for "viva" ("long live"), but if Italians have to write Washington or Walter or whatever by hand, that's how they will write it. So to an Italian — sign maker or otherwise — a capital N simply wouldn't resemble a capital W.

So don't think I'm necessarily right; I do not have anything more than a superficial acquaintance with Italian, and did not know this last set of facts about Italian handwriting.

And there is more than I thought to be explained. Jim Donaldson writes to me:

This "Mountain Dew" thing seems to have really embedded itself somehow:

  • At http://www.rifugiobianchet.it/rifugio/?lang=en : "The Mountain Dew" is listed as one of the navigator options along the top.
  • http://www.tipsandtrip.com/locations/italy/san-bernardino-verbano/restaurant/240-rifugio-fantoli : A comment from over 4 years ago: "Located in a mountain dew, it's perfect for a summer trip…"
  • http://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC1Y3PP_6-rifugio-marisa-consiglieri-cornizzolo?guid=2e6f2551-055f-4f9d-ab9f-4f78727d5661 : Marisa Consiglieri-Cornizzolo
  • http://activitieslakemaggiore.com/whats-up/moontan-on-the-snow/ : "After eating and drinking is time to sleep: overnight in the mountain dew."
  • http://www.carloalberto.org/education/allievi/students/senior/fabiolenicoletto/ : CV of someone who has worked as a waiter in a "mountain dew".

If you look up (rifugio "mountain dew") on Google, you get nearly 100k hits. What's going on here? It's not Google Translate!

It certainly isn't. Google Translate doesn't get the blame for this. Ultimately, we may never be able to find out who does, unless the people who made the sign in the Dolomites and the people who curated the WordReference English-Italiano Dictionary (© 2013) are alerted to the issue and asked about where they got their strange mistranslation. So, Italian readers of Language Log, please help.

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2 Comments »

  1. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 8, 2013 @ 3:58 am

    Well, I have learned that Mountain Dew is (also) a soft drink. I only knew it as a hard one.

  2. Dario B said,

    December 8, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    This is my first comment here. I am not a professional linguist, but I think I can add my two cents as a native speaker of Italian, a member of the Italian Alpine Club and a passionate hiker of the Dolomites.

    I have to say that Bob Ladd is absolutely right about the way most Italians write capital W's by hand (and small ones as well). I second his opinion that it is highly implausible that the origin of this funny mistranslation is a confusion with den.
    As a matter of fact, Rifugio alpino can mean anything from the simple shelters of the 19th-century mountaineering pioneers to some five-star hotels of fashionable ski resorts, but it’s mostly used for what the English wikipedia calls mountain hut. While the German Hütte is a perfect fit, it’s always been difficult for me to find British or American translations covering all cases, and I think I'm not alone at that. So it’s not surprising for me that at a certain point somebody came up with such an obscure word as dew and scores of imitators had their “aha!” moment and started using it. This happened before 2008, is still happening, even in official maps, and is a fascinating example of how linguistic mutations spread in a population of wannabe translators…

    I believe that most if not all reported cases derive ultimately from Wordreference.com (a site that I use… gasp… on a daily basis), but the question is, how did the dew leak into it? Apart from deliberate data pollution, I can figure some ad hoc scenarios, like a “dew point measurement” misinterpreted as “temperature at hut position“, or I can remember a couple of occasions when our band of hikers asked for “essence of the hut” meaning “essence of mountain dew” in the alcoholic sense. These are however wild guesses with no evidence to support them, and I don’t believe them myself.

    What I am going to do is (i) to report the error to Wordreference.com, asking for more information about its origin, especially date of entry (ii) to write a letter to the editors of the Alpine Club review, to fight the spread of this nonsense (yes I’m adopting a prescriptivist stance in this case) (iii) possibly to write letters to some of the people who used the mistranslation on the web, asking if they recall where they took it from. I'll inform you of the results.

    A final note: the Luigi Gorza Refuge is located in a Ladin-speaking area. The indigenous name of both the area and the dialect is Fodóm /foˈdom/. I am sure that the managers of the chalet call it útia /ˈutja/, a loanword from Old High German actually closer to the original than modern German Hütte. They could also call it ciasota /ʧaˈzɔta/ with the typical /ka/>/ʧa/-shift, but that would really mean a much more primitive hut.

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