Translate Server Error

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This is probably the most egregious of all Chinese-English translation fails:

We saw the identical mistake on a giant banner outside of a cafeteria half-a-dozen years ago: see "Honest but unhelpful".

Translate Server Error

Here we have the same mistranslation: the Chinese characters are CAN1TING1 餐厅 ("dining hall"; 餐廳 in traditional characters). You'd think that a person would want to be really sure about the translation before investing in a brass plaque upon which to engrave it.

Google Image Search turns up some more examples.

This howler is so monumental that it has become an acronym, TSE, and has been translated back into Chinese and incorporated in a t-shirt design:

Source: the third and fourth items here.

fānyì fúwùqì cuòwù 翻譯服務器錯誤 ("translate server error")

Compare also "A Bus to Don't Know".

[Thanks to Sanping Chen]


  1. Linda said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 5:02 am

    And in case anyone thinks only non English speakers get things wrong, there's this story here of a bilingual sign that was't quite right in Wales.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 6:14 am


    Language Log readers are not in danger of harboring that misperception:

    "Honest but unhelpful II"

    And we have covered translation errors to and from many other languages as well.

  3. Jon Lennox said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 7:23 am

    Does anyone know what software it is that's returning this error? If there's a "translate server", presumably it's something web- or cloud-based. Why is it not presenting its error messages in Chinese?

  4. cameron said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 9:14 am

    Is CAN1TING1 餐厅 itself a borrowing from English "canteen"? Or is that just a coincidence?

  5. Gene Callahan said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

    "Why is it not presenting its error messages in Chinese?"

    Because the software was written by English speakers, most likely.

  6. fs said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    And the software writers (English-speaking or not) didn't have a localization team / heed the "Localizable string" warnings that their code analysis tools should have been firing.

    This one is pretty high on my list of favorite translation errors.

  7. Jim said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

    "Is CAN1TING1 餐厅 itself a borrowing from English "canteen"? Or is that just a coincidence?"

    They don't sound very similar. The "can1' part is pronounced /tshan/. And besides that can1ting1 has a really clear etymology in Chinese, whereas "canteen" is a little opaque in English. Still I doubt it's a loan from Chinese into English.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

    @cameron @Jim

    The CAN1TING1 餐厅 / canteen resemblance is discussed in "Spelling with Chinese character(istic)s"

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 6:33 pm

    [C18: from French cantine, from Italian cantina wine cellar, from canto corner, from Latin canthus iron hoop encircling chariot wheel; see cant²]

    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged

  10. Michael Watts said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 11:59 pm

    It's quite common for foreigners (and Chinese speaking to them) in China to refer to 餐厅 as "canteens", but it always throws me for a loop because to me a "canteen" can only refer to something you might use to carry water with you into the desert. I personally refer to them variously as "cafeterias" (if my mind is in translation mode) or "dining halls" (if I'm calling on my actual natural vocabulary, but ironically a much closer element-by-element rendering of "餐厅").

    I tend to just be baffled when people think I'll understand "canteen" as an easy-to-remember gloss of 餐厅.

  11. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 12:39 am

    @ Michael Watts
    I think "canteen" is more British than American.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 5:23 am

    From the time I was a youth in northeastern Ohio, I remember "canteen" as referring to a small eating facility for workers in a business. I myself have used the word several times recently when asking employees in various offices where I visited whether they had a canteen. Since they right away took me to their "kitchen" / "snacking area" (I really don't know what others call it), they understood what I was talking about.

  13. Daniel Barkalow said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 10:10 am

    Perhaps, before accepting that the English for "餐厅" is really so long and complicated, the person did a web search, and turned up photographic evidence that someone had used that translation before.

    It is kind of surprising that "Translate Server Error" has now appeared twice as 餐厅, and seemingly never for anything else.

  14. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    @ Daniel Barkalow
    Just now I'm making the connection between "server" and "serving food". I think it's accidental, though. (Those with poor English ability may not know what a "server" in a restaurant is, so this will not have had an influence on the choice of translation.)

  15. SamC said,

    July 8, 2014 @ 9:10 am

    I'm a couple months late to comment, but as an American English speaker, canteen as a cafeteria is definitely familiar to me, but I associate it more with military usage or camp (or the Star Wars "cantina" scene).

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