Automatic electric mugging

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In response to "Traductions de Merde" (4/26/2014), S.S. wrote to tell me about the Bad Translations Flickr group, which she runs. The picture below shows one of her favorite examples, where English mug in the nominal sense "A heavy cylindrical drinking cup usually having a handle" is translated into French as if it were the verbal sense "to rob at gunpoint or with the threat of violence", and auto in the sense of "automobile" is translated as if it were "automatic":

Then there's this fascinating combination of urology and financial planning:

And many more…


  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 7:15 am

    Never mind that this "traduction de merde" is two-thirds wrong, I have often noticed that translations from English into French are often longer, and sometimes much longer, in the target language than in the source language. Indeed, English signs and announcements seem generally to be quite terse in comparison to those in many other languages.

  2. Rob said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 7:58 am

    To be fair, as a British English speaker, I also did not recognise that "auto" meant "automobile", and I read this as being short for "automatic electric mug". But the translation of "mug" is great.

  3. Ellen K. said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 8:28 am

    Rob, I'm American and I thought that as well. And I'm thinking, assuming "auto" really does mean it's for the car, it should be an electric auto mug, not an auto electric mug. Or is an electric mug an actual common thing where this is sold?

  4. JJM said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    As a Canadian, I am embarrassed.

    Was there no one involved in product marketing with at least enough high school French to point out: "Hey, I'm no expert but 'attaque à main armée' seems like an awful lot of words to say 'mug' even in French"?

    [(myl) I don't think that relative length would necessarily have been an adequate filter, since at one point, the official stance of the responsible authorities in Quebec was that French translation of "bulldozer" should be "tracteur à lame horizontale".

    But I think that memories of high school French, or even an eye for cognates, ought to raise some suspicions about "attaque"… ]

  5. Jan said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    Electric Car Mug would have been more (AmE) idiomatic to begin with. We don't use 'auto' in this sense that much except in titles like this.

  6. ajay said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    Electric Car Mug would have been more (AmE) idiomatic to begin with.

    It would need a note on the packaging: "Also compatible with gasoline and diesel cars".

  7. Theophylact said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 9:00 am

    Umm… where was this device (and its packaging) manufactured? One gets you ten it wasn't Canada.

    [(myl) The company behind the brand may be be "Trillium Worldwide", whose web page says:

    Trillium Worldwide, Inc., located in north suburban Chicago, with roots in the industry dating back to 1975, provides a continuous flow of innovative products to improve the way people live, work, travel and play.

    However, the automatic electric mugging is not among that company's listed products, and I was not able to find any corresponding web page for "Trillium Canada".]

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 9:04 am

    The small base (to fit into a car's cup holder) and electric connection shown in the illustration mark the mug as designed for an auto(mobile).

    Compare this "heated travel mug".

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 9:12 am



    "Trillium Canada" makes one wonder.

  10. Jens Fiederer said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 9:16 am

    Regrettably, your UrinationWaterDrop.png does not seem to be present on your server.

    [(myl) The image file was there, I just inserted an extra "=" (yielding <img src==…) so that the embedding attempt failed. Should be fixed now.]

  11. Ellen K. said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 9:27 am

    Okay, so I didn't even think about the odd word choices in English when posting about the bad word order.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    @JJM: It seems clear to me, based on this example and others, that more and more corporations are "outsourcing" their translation requirements to other corporations who just plug the source into a translation program, and nobody ever, ever looks at the results until they cause public embarrassment.

    Of course, the corporations that do this deserve all the resulting embarrassment and more; one can hope that someday they will learn the lesson and remember that there still things that humans do better than computers, and sometimes it's worth the expense of hiring them to so those things.

    Oh, I'm sorry, did I rant a bit too much there?

  13. Ted said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 10:33 am

    I encountered a similar phenomenon several years ago, when I tried to fix a Canadian commode using a "Complete Toilet Repair Kit," also known as a "Terminé Trousse de Reparation pour Toilette." At least the translators responsible for that box were able to distinguish different parts of speech, unlike the auto muggers, but they had trouble with the distinction between the temporal and exhaustive senses of "complete."

  14. BobW said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    @Robert – I for one welcome our new robot translation overlords…

  15. GH said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    These Canadian examples almost lead me to suspect that the people making the labels are doing it on purpose, as some sort of "go slow"-style protest against bilingual requirements. But of course that wouldn't make much business sense.

  16. Eric P Smith said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

    More than one of the above comments remarks on the wordiness of French. Some years ago when the official Laws of Chess and their Interpretations were in French, one of the Interpretations consisted of a question and answer, and the official answer was something like “La Fédération Internationale des Échecs est d'avis que les règles du jeu Échecs doivent être interprétées de telle sorte que c'est le cas.” The official English translation was "Yes."

  17. Eric P Smith said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

    …jeu d'Échecs…

  18. Lugubert said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 1:00 am

    On wordiness: years ago, I was on a team translating for a major multimegadollar company. The Swedish subsidiary told us that we should try for half the number of (US) English words.

    As an example, "Now please press button A" became "Tryck på A" (which in German probably would have been "A drücken",

  19. Victor Mair said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 7:55 am

    If you're wondering what the Chinese really says, it is:

    Xiǎobiàn xiàng qián kào
    Shuǐdī bù wài luò


    Lean forward when you pee
    So that the drops won't spill outside

    The sign within the sign held by the little egg-headed man is an exhortation to conserve energy and reduce carbon (emissions), followed by the name of a company related to carbon usage.

    As for the English translation, it seems to have been added later. Some parts can be correlated with the Chinese:

    kào 靠 is rendered as "depend"
    wài 外 is translated as "extra"
    xiàng qián 向前, of course, is "forward" and bù 不 is "not"

    But it's all a jumble.

    It's possible that the translator was thinking of xiǎobiàn 小便 ("urine") as "lesser convenience", i.e., "advantage", i.e., "income") and of shuǐdī 水滴 ("drops") as little bits that accumulate. Any way you slice it, though, the translation is a horrid mess.

  20. Ray Dillinger said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 1:09 am

    When I looked at the French, I thought it was just a kind of horribly silly thing to call an attack with an "automatic" taser or cattle prod.

    I'm actually sort of relieved that the French, rather than the English, was the mistranslation here.

  21. Jeffry House said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

    When I first came to Canada, the supermarket stocked "Wong Wing Bobo Balls." But the law requires a French translation, so both founding peoples are equally informed as to what is being sold. "Les Bals de Bobo de Wong Wing" failed utterly in that task.

    From the history of Wong Wing Company:

    "Having found their own gateway to success at Steinberg, the Wongs gained more exposure at Montreal’s Expo ’67, where Wong Wing sold bobo balls, or chicken wrapped in batter; these are now called chicken balls. Then came the annual CN exhibition in Toronto, which also opened doors for the company. From there the egg rolls multiplied."

  22. Colin Fine said,

    May 17, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    Long before computer translation, but I have never forgotten the sign at the top of the UP staircase on Notre Dame in Paris around 1970. "Déscente interdite" was translated as "taken down to forbid".

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