Transliteration follies

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From Arun Tharuvai, via his Twitter account, we find that Intersecting Bubbles has this brief but fascinating post on a multilingual notice:  "Shell Petroleum thinks that Hindi is English written in the Devanagari Script ".

It describes a routine notification from Shell petroleum warning people not to dig where they might accidentally rupture a gas pipeline.  The warning was accompanied by this notice in twelve languages:

If you would like this information in a language more suitable to you please send request to:

The first version, in Hindi, is a disaster.  Here's how it is described:

इफ़ यो  नीद  तीस इन्फॉर्मतिओं इन आ लंगुगे तट  इस सुताबले फॉर  यो, प्लेआसए  सेंड़ योर  रेक़ुएस्ट  :

I tried to parse it, got confused, my wife started looking at it and started laughing.  Here it is very transliterated out in ISO-15919

if yo nīd tīs infôrmatioṁ in ā laṁguge taṭ is sutābale fôr yo, pleāsaē seṁŗ yor request:

The "Hindi" text actually would be pronounced like this:

If yo need tis infawrmatiõ in aah langugay tat is suit-aah-buh-lay for yo, plea-aah-say send yor request

They had simply transliterated the whole of the English, word for word, into Devanagari and tried to pass it off as Hindi!  Now, we often find plenty of transliterated English in Hindi texts, but not to this degree.

Naturally, wanting to see if they had done something similar with Chinese, that's the next language I turned to.  At first I couldn't make out the Chinese characters, even using one magnifying glass on top of another one, because the density of the strokes makes them impossible to distinguish in such a small format.  I could read enough of the Japanese to see that it wasn't just transliteration of the English, and I could make out enough of several of the other languages to realize that they weren't merely transliterations of the English either.

Finally, by playing around with the image for awhile, I discovered that I could enlarge the scan sufficiently so that I could read all of the languages without difficulty.  Here's what the Chinese says:

Rúguǒ nǐ yòng yú duì nǐ gèng shìhé de yīzhǒng yǔyán xūyào zhège zīxùn, qǐng nǐ de bǎ yāoqiú chuán lún dào:


Although I suppose that most people who are literate in Chinese could make out more or less what is being communicated, the translation is so clumsy and ungrammatical that I think Chinese readers will find it laughable.  I'm sorry to say this, but it comes across as having been translated by someone with — at best — second-year level of training in Chinese and relying on an English-Chinese dictionary to fill in the slots of terms that he / she doesn't know.

A more idiomatic rendering would read something like this:

Rúguǒ nǐ xīwàng gāi xìnxī bèi fānyì chéng nǐ shúxī de yǔyán, qǐng jiāng zhè yī yāoqiú jì dào:

如果你希望该信息被翻译成你熟悉的语言, 请将这一要求寄到:

or this version in a more formal register:

Rúguǒ nín xīwàng yǐ gèng shìhé nín de yǔyán huòqǔ cǐ xìnxī, qǐng bǎ qǐngqiú fāsòng zhì


Although I can read most of the other languages on the scan, I would not want to vouch for their idiomaticity.  Perhaps Language Log readers who know these languages well might care to comment on them.

[Thanks to Andy Lee, Ziwei He, and Wei Shao]


  1. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

    The German isn't as badly munged as it could've been. The most jarring errors are the complete lack of a finite verb in the second clause and the absence of an object for the verb "senden" in the last one.

    I don't know that I can bring myself to look at the Korean.

  2. Not a naive speaker said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

    German is a mix of machine translation with some fix up. It's not pure google, bing or online-translator.

    My version:
    Wenn Sie diese Information in einer für Sie passenderen Sprache möchten, senden Sie bitte ihre Anfrage an:

    I think the english "original" wasn't written by a native speaker.

  3. quixote said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

    Good grief. Like most of the others, the Russian is just a transposition of the English so it doesn't sound right. The only actual error I see is that the imperative "send" doesn't agree with the honorific "you" in the rest of the sentence. I've forgotten too much of my Russian, but instead of "poslat'" it ought to be something like "poslavite."

    My guess is they told off some poor intern to do this and she/he was nearing the end of their stint and just did it on the way out the door. Google translate could do a better job, which is the modern equivalent of a monkey could type Shakespeare given enough time.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 1:14 pm

    I can't immediately tell from the Intersecting Bubbles post where this happened geographically, and the selection of languages seems so wide as to be puzzling (i.e. it's not clear to me what location in the Anglophone would have that as the logical set of non-English languages best calculated to cover the local immigrant communities). The phrase "suitable to you" rather than "suitable for you" is what makes the English version sound a bit ESL-ish to my ear, but my ear may not be completely accurate. I haven't looked at actual hits for context, but the google books n-gram viewer says that "suitable to you" is Out There, although in recent years the "for you" variant is 6 or 7 times more common — interestingly enough if you go back a century or so the levels of for v. to usage are much closer. (Also there's an obligatory-in-my-idiolect word missing between "send" and "request" but that could be bureaucratese rather than ESLishness.)

  5. Jeroen Mostert said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

    This smells like it was passed off to one person who had to tick a box from upper management that said "make sure we offer it in different languages" and then somehow had to produce this little pamphlet without access to actual translators. Who knows, maybe this was actually crowdsourced — with whatever crowd the local Shell division happened to have available. It doesn't seem to be the work of a single automated translator, since I very much doubt that would produce the "Hindi" we see here, while the German is clearly the result of something automated and the stilted, unidiomatic French lacks all accents (something not even Google Translate gets wrong on its own, let alone a human speaker). All in all, a strange document which seems to have had some effort spent on it, just all of it radiating into wrong directions.

    The irony of the offer for another language being badly translated itself is quite tasty. Maybe it's self reflective — "if you'd like it in language of better quality than what you're reading right now, please ask headquarters, they'll try harder". That said, the fact that this is supposed to help people understand safety requirements makes it a little less amusing. Perhaps Shell should offer a pictographic version as well, in case all else fails.

  6. Lazar said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

    So was the Devanagari English produced with an automatic transliterator? I can't imagine that someone actually knew the script would do that.

  7. Lugubert said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 4:08 pm

    So, somebody found a transliterator for Hindi and thought that it meant translator?

  8. Paolo said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

    The Italian line (Se desiderate queste informazioni in una lingua più adatta a voi vi prego di mandare una richiesta) isn't ungrammatical, apart from the missing preposition a at the end, but it is nonetheless a very poor translation. The combination of 2nd person plural in the secondary clause and 1st person singular in the main clause doesn't sound right, and una lingua più adatta a voi is not something an Italian would ever say. Moreover, in this type of context we would expect an impersonal form, e.g. Per informazioni un un'altra lingua inviare una richiesta a:

  9. Rebecca said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

    On a tangent: isn't it kind of awkward that the only contact info is a snail mail address to Wichita.

    In any case, I hope someone sends them a request to get the notice in Hindi. I think the response might be interesting.

  10. Chris Kern said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 8:06 pm

    The Japanese is odd — it's too good to have been produced purely by machine translation (at least the one's I've seen), and it's not a direct literal translation of the English. For instance, "If you would like…" becomes もし…必要とするなら ("If it is necessary…") On the other hand the Japanese is very unidiomatic, both from the three uses of "you" (あなた) where none would normally be used, and the use of stilted phrases like いっそう適した. I'm not sure how the translation was created.

  11. Chris Kern said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 8:12 pm

    Unfortunately I can't edit my comment to change "one's" there to "ones".

    Of course the sign does not give one any hope that the "information in a language more suitable to you" would be comprehensible at all!

  12. MMF said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 8:13 pm

    The Japanese is quite wonky as well: among other things, あなた (2nd person pronoun, sort of) is used three times, which is completely unidiomatic.

  13. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

    The Japanese is quite wonky as well: among other things, あなた (2nd person pronoun, sort of) is used three times, which is completely unidiomatic.

    It's the same in the Korean. (Perhaps the same person did both?) 당신 is similar to あなた; that is, although often considered the closest equivalent to a polite form of "you", its most common use is actually between married spouses. The result is pure Translatese.

  14. Mark Meckes said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 2:29 am

    It's possible that the awkward English original was written by a non-native speaker, but I think it's also likely that it was a native speaker who was in a hurry (explaining the missing indefinite article) and simply isn't a very good writer.

    I agree that the German appears to be the result of machine translation plus human fix-up (probably by a human with no actual knowledge of the language).

    My French is pretty poor, but as far as I can tell the French is at least grammatical (albeit missing accents), although it sounds very unnatural. It seems to track the English word-for-word as much as possible while resulting in grammatical French. It looks to me like it was produced by a human who has taken some French classes but has little experience actually speaking or writing French, and who doesn't know how to type accented characters.

  15. Mark Meckes said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 3:41 am

    Also, does anyone else find it oddly amateurish that each language is identified in English, as opposed to in the language itself?

  16. Eric Cholet said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 4:55 am

    The French version is okay, except for the use of « confortable » which is more suited to describe a chair than a language. It also has no diacritics, which doesn’t impair too much its readability but screams non fluent translator.

  17. richardelguru said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 6:03 am

    Mark, you got there first, but I'd add that it's always struck me as weird that companies (Shell is not alone in this) seem to think that those who need to read the massage in German or Russian or Chinese etc. can't be expected to instantly recognize their own language… though, after reading some of the other comments on the translations, perhaps there is a good chance they wouldn't?

  18. richardelguru said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 6:04 am

    In my last, please accept that the 'massage' is the 'message'!

  19. Rodger C said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 11:26 am

    As is the medium.

  20. Jongseong Park said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

    The Korean goes like this:

    만일 당신이 더 당신에게 어울리는 언어로 이 정보를 필요로 하면, 당신의 요청을 보내어 주세요:
    "If for yourself, in a language more matching to yourself, this data is needed, please send yourself's request:"

    Not really ungrammatical per se, but seriously unidiomatic. Like Chris Kern in reaction to the Japanese translation, I'm mystified as to how the translation came about. There are no obvious parsing errors that creep into every sentence in machine translation of English to Korean, but it still reads like a parody of a machine translation.

    As already pointed out, the pronoun 당신 dangsin, though prevalent in low-quality translatese, has limited usage in real life. In fact, I have heard many people say that the fact that people are using this word in real life at all is a fairly recent phenomenon, no doubt due to the influence of translation. 그녀 geunyeo, coined to translate "she", is another pronoun introduced by translation (the usual third-person pronoun 그 geu does not distinguish gender). In any case, especially in notices like these, you would never see actual pronouns used in Korean.

    A more natural wording would be something like:
    이 책자의 내용을 다른 언어로 받기 원하신다면 다음 주소로 연락 바랍니다.
    Roughly, it means, "If [you] want to receive the contents of this brochure in a different language, please contact the following address." I added "of this brochure" which is not in the original (it might not be a brochure but something else, of course) because 내용 naeyong "content" looks better when it is indicated what it is from, and I left out the "more suitable" bit because it is an entirely unnecessary locution in Korean (I was tempted to simply say "in Korean"). There is no pronoun in the Korean, though I added [you] in the English translation so it would read better.

  21. Joshua said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

    richardelguru: My guess is that the identification of the languages by their English names is for the benefit of the Shell Petroleum staff who put this together and their supervisors, who obviously don't know a lot about most of these languages.

    Possible scenario had they omitted the English names of the languages:

    Supervisor: "You were supposed to have the phrase 'If you would like this information in a language more suitable to you please send request to' translated into Thai."

    Employee: "I did! It's on the sheet."

    Supervisor: "So which one is the Thai translation?"

    Employee: "Uh … I don't know either."

  22. Arun Tharuvai said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 1:55 am

    J. W. Brewer: The brochure was sent out to people (including me) in some San Francisco Bay Area localities.

    The list of languages seems like a fairly standard set of immigrant languages/generic foreign languages. The primary national languages of the primary immigrant source countries of the San Francisco Bay Area seemed to be there, if not necessarily the primary languages of the immigrants themselves.

  23. richardelguru said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 6:00 am

    Clever Joshua!
    I did sort of get to this, but I then had the additional thought: 'Good idea in development, but why not remove them once that's finished?'

  24. RobertL said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 8:05 am

    Arun – I would have thought that Spanish should be on the list for notices for the Bay Area?

  25. Arun Tharuvai said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    RobertL – the full warning packet was completely English-Spanish bilingual, as is common with many government or safety notices in the Bay Area.

  26. Bruce said,

    August 3, 2014 @ 6:59 am

    It occurs to me there are very few persons in the world qualified to translate to a wide set of languages, and that some sort of registry of translators is called for. Of course anyone can say they are qualified to translate English (or Hindi etc) to language X but international forums can invite native speakers of Hindi to comment on alleged proper sentences with proper meanings in that language. A coordinating language is of course needed — English is obvious. I believe India uses English as the lingua franca. So when you want everyone in India to know something, first translate it into English (which the educated classes in India can do, in their own fashion at least), and then seek help for the various other languages you need. For a public sign, the fragments will be short and people here might be more than willing to comment on candidate versions in Telegu or Tamil or Urdu or various European languages before an embarrassing sign is constructed. Longer things such as the ridiculous Sri Lankan Tourism website, constructed entirely hand with an incomprehensible result, that should be paid work, but with a record of volunteer work in simpler things, trust may be established.

  27. Florence Artur said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 5:22 am

    As noted in other comments, the French is grammatical and understandable (and lacking accents), but the use of confortable as a translation for suitable is puzzling. Neither google translate nor my Harrap's Shorter dictionary propose this. I can't think of any context where this translation would be correct.

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