Yes it can

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It can cover partially-used containers of cat food:

Reader PS observes

They’ve translated “can cover” as “peut couvrir / puede cubrir”. Which one hopes is at least an accurate description of the product.

For those not versed in Romance languages, those are the French and Spanish translations of "can cover", in the sense "has the ability to cover".

It's heartening to see that American companies "can" be just as careless with their product-label translations as Chinese companies can.


  1. Alexa S. said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

    I've seen packaging that translated "plant mister" (as in an implement for spraying a fine mist of water onto your plants) as "Señor de le Planta" (Mr. Plant or perhaps even Lord of the Plant).

  2. Olivia F said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

    The best part is that it translates it correctly in the smaller print. At least it does in French–"boite" = "box, or can (as in cans of food)". Oy.

  3. Filius Lunae said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    Google Translate strikes again.
    I believe that's the standard reply these days for any sort of "Engrish".

    And indeed, verifying the phrase on Google gives the translation on the can almost word for word.

  4. Filius Lunae said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    Ah, yes, and the "Made in USA" part only makes it better. Proudly butchered in the US. That'll teach those Chinese companies.

  5. Charles in Vancouver said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    Reminds me of how Babelfish once translated French "salons", as in chat rooms, to "let us salt".

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    I had to label some recycling bins for my Romanian grandma-in-law the other day, but my vocab failed me on 'cans'. Lazily I used Google Translate, which gave me cutii de ştiri, which I dutifully wrote on the bin, to much ridicule. It means 'boxes of news'. No idea how GT came up with that – it doesn't anymore. For 'can cover' it gives poate acoperi

  7. Nick said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

    @olivia, that makes sense as there's only one translation of "cans" with an s. (well, maybe not only one, but definitely not the verb/modal one.)

  8. J Lee said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

    this is the best argument i have ever seen against arbitrary graduation requirements — it is probable that every single person involved in producing that label took several years of French or Spanish yet cannot dust off the cobwebs to recognize a goddamned infinitive or most frequently used modal.

  9. Janice Byer said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    Sounds like someone translated it from the Queen's English rather than American English. Across the Pond, food comes in a tin, full stop, so it'd be a tin cover, which entails a different kind of potential translator booby trap.

  10. Joe Fineman said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    About 60 years ago I heard tell of an American who received a letter from France addressed to him in care of M. le Général Delivery. (It would be a pleasant exercise to design the uniform.)

  11. Janice Byer said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

    "Can" is also slang for "toilet", so I'd say the translator could've done worse…or better, hee, depending on one's view.

  12. Faith said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 9:46 pm

    This puts me in mind of the old joke that includes the line, "they eat what they can, and what they can't, they can."

  13. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 10:08 pm


    That's not the punch line, though. The punch line is the English lady telling her friends the delightful thing she heard in America: "We eat what we can, and tin the rest!"

  14. MN said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

    @ Janice Byer

    Hmm… I'm from the UK, and feel equally at home saying 'tin' or 'can' for a cylindrical metal food container – my parents are the same, but I'm pretty sure my grandparents don't really use '.
    I would never see 'a tin of coke' – it has to be a 'can' of drink (though I can call a beer can a 'tinny' if I want to pretend I'm a 'lad'), but when it's food in the can/tin, then both are possible in my dialect (London commuter belt, went to university).

    As for this translation error: yes it's depressing, but if the job was done by a freelancer, then it's quite understandable. You see, when a translator is given a project, usually it will be information on hundreds of products, all presented in thousands of 'segments' – sentences or fragments of text. These segments are often jumbled up, so 'can of food' might be nowhere near 'can cover'. Without any contextual clues, how would you have translated 'can cover'?

    The translation is done on something that looks like an excel file – there are no pictures of cans, just segments in boxes, with empty boxes to put the translation in.

    Couple this with a tight deadline to translate a mountain of material, and a rate that can be as low as $0.04 per word, and you have the result that many translators aren't inclined to ask too many questions like 'Dear client, Is 'can cover' in segment #6753 referring to a tin can, or is it a cover for a can?'. Good translators do ask questions, and charge rates that allow them to do that, but it's a vicious market, and some people just won't pay for good translation…

  15. Patrick said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    "M. le Général Delivery" reminds me of a pun-based advertising campaign of the Swiss Federal Railways (in the eighties, I think) for their "Generalabonnement", or short "Generalabo", a card for unlimited travel on their network. The campaign used indeed a "General Abo" in uniform.

  16. maidhc said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

    Or the American who hears the English joke: "She was only the stableman's daughter, but all the horsemen knew her" and took it back to his friends at home: "She was only the stableman's daughter, but HORSE SHIT!"

  17. WillSteed said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 12:10 am

    Could it be the result of a trademark issue? To obtain a trademark (at least under Australian law), the mark must not be self-descriptive. By translating it as [[can]Aux [cover]V]VP instead of [can cover]N, they might avoid being self-descriptive.

    It's a long shot.

  18. Justin L. said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 12:48 am

    The Spanish in small print is also messed up. It should be "mayoria de latas". Somehow, though, the French translation does have the proper partitive construction.

  19. Joonas Karl Kuusik said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 3:15 am

    “Can“ is an excellent example of a word that can be both verb and noun. It’s true that products made in Asia, for example China, have very little accuracy concerning their translations.
    I myself have experienced these failed translations several times. For instance, when I was twelve, i bought a lighter from Egypt. It was a fake Zippo and thus had amazing carvings. On the back of the lighter there was a small text saying “WWII begin in 1939 and end at 1945…“.Clearly the translator or author of this text was not familiar with past tenses in English and that’s why the verbs “begin“ and “end“ were in present form. So I showed my lovely lighter to a friend from Taiwan. He spoke good English and easily found an explanation- in some parts of Asia they use past tense for completed actions differently.
    I found another good example of interesting English on my motorcycle. I was picking up my sister somewhere downtown and had a couple of minutes of spare time. So i do what every motorcyclist does when they’ve stopped by the side of the rode for no special reason- I start scanning every crack and surface of the bike as if I’m searching for something. Suddenly I notice all these little labels saying what not to do with each component. They all clearly expressed that sticking my finger in the muffler is a bad idea, that driving without a helmet is dangerous etc. What i found interesting was the wording and sentence structure. Yes, I know that these sentences are structured to be most easily understandable, but even considering that I found most of the sentences just awkward. For example: “To carry more than 2 people is dangerous“ or “Motorcycle not equipped with manual starter.“
    This abuse of English gets really annoying when you get the impression that the one who committed this crime was not sure whether he or she was correct and just didn’t bother to check anything up.

  20. Duncan said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 3:59 am

    @ JJK:

    > “To carry more than 2 people is dangerous“
    > “Motorcycle not equipped with manual starter.“

    > This abuse of English gets really annoying […]

    ?? Those seem perfectly fine to me.

    The first admittedly sounds almost like a translated Chinese proverb, but they're both brief and to the point and I don't see anything wrong with them at all, particularly for labels intended to be read in a brief glance, so brief and to the point is rather the goal.

  21. David W. said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 6:49 am

    Around Christmas, the Sharpie marker company sells a pack of two markers, one red and one green; the package says "For making a list and checking it twice."

    This is followed by a word-for-word translation of that slogan into French.

    Does this make sense to speakers of French?

  22. Kathryn said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    I was going to suggest that it is possible the manufacturer considered "can cover" a punning product name, which of course would not translate into the romance languages, and had translated what it thought of as the primary meaning. This idea is not supported by a visit to the manufacturer's website, alas!

  23. Ed said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    That reminds me of a really odd bug in MS Word's synonym feature that is now fixed. If you looked up 'information' you would get things like 'in line'.

  24. Keith said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    When I lived in Paris (France, not Texas), a small DIY shop along the street was selling some boxes for transporting small animals.

    The English name for these was "Pet Traveller", but the French translation below read "Pet Voyageur".

    Those who know French can giggle (or facepalm) now.

    For those who don't know French, the translation means "Travelling Fart".


  25. Janice Byer said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    David W., my guess is the targeted consumers are North American Francophones, so long surrounded and outnumbered by Anglophones they could run but not hide from "Santa Claus is Coming to Town".

  26. Janelle B. said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    @Pflaumbaum Next time, use I use that website in conjunction with Google when I cannot remember a word or conjugation in Romanian.

  27. Ray Dillinger said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    I find it fairly amazing that "pet voyageur" rather than "mascot voyageur" was used in Paris France of all places. Was the guy who made the labels at the DIY shop a non-francophone?


  28. Andy Averill said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    Yup, they're American: Van Ness Plastic Molding, Clifton NJ, "family owned since 1945".

    But the longer phrase doesn't come from Google Translate. For "fits most pet food cans", GT gives "s'adapte boîtes d'aliments pour animaux les plus" and "ajusta las latas de alimentos para mascotas más". I'm guessing the two-word phrase and the longer phrase were translated at different times for some reason.

  29. Keith said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    @Ray: it was the manufacturer's (or distributor's) own label.

    "Mascot" is not the correct translation for "pet", anyway. The correct terms are "animal domestique" or "animal de compagnie". Both are unwieldy terms to use as product names.


  30. Janice Byer said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

    Those who've seen The Social Network might recall a scene wherein a French major from Stanford, unaware she's hooked up with the inventor of Napster, is surprised to learn he's not a student. [Not a spoiler.] He says, "I'm an entrepreneur." She smirks. "You're unemployed." "No, I'm an entrepreneur." She baits him, "Okay, what was your latest 'preneur?"

    I wondered how this scene could be dubbed in French. Would you believe the French word for "entrepreneur" is "business"?

  31. teucer said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

    When I was in college, there was a grocery store within walking distance of campus that stocked house-brand herbs and spices, labeled in English and Spanish. Most of them did pretty well, but the "BASIL / LA ALBAHACA SE VA" will never cease to make me chuckle.

  32. Ben Karlin said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 11:49 pm

    @faith, @Morten Jonsson

    I learned it as, "They eat all they are able but what they are unable to eat, they tin."

    circa 1962 and, unfortunately, still told.

  33. Marc Naimark said,

    October 1, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    @Janice. The Italian thing is SOP in France for English-language TV shows and movies dubbed in French.

    When characters say, for example, "he doesn't understand you, he doesn't speak English", the dubbed version will say "he doesn't understand you, he doesn't speak our language". It's a convention that allows the translator to avoid pretending that these people in Milwaukee are supposed to be speaking French, yet without stating that they're speaking English, which they're obviously not (in the dubbed version).

    Likewise, when a character in these programs is speaking French, it becomes Italian .Since the cliché in English is that French is romantic, making the character speak Italian usually works, since Italian is a romantic language for French-speakers.

  34. Dakota said,

    October 1, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    Good thing Google Translate didn't come up with "tapa" as an alternative to "cover". In Chile, it means "cover" all right-in the sense of mating.

  35. a George said,

    October 1, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    @faith and @morten jonsson: you are both slightly off the mark: it is the response to a question to a pineapple grower "what do you do with all those pineapples [sic]: 'weeelll, we eat what we can and what we can't [US pronunciation] we can'. The joke is the string of cans. It was reported to me by a gentleman who had heard it in the US in 1941.

  36. Jonathan said,

    October 1, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

    "Oignons" (onions) once showed up on a menu in France as "let's anoint."

  37. Janice Byer said,

    October 1, 2011 @ 9:27 pm

    Marc, my foremost reason for Googling for a French-dubbed version of that particular scene was, in truth, to hear how her speaking French would be dealt with, so your enlightening comment is much appreciated. Interesting to know French people share my own love of the sound of Italian. I swoon for words that end in a vowel.

  38. Joe Boyd said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

    My personal favorite is "Fidel I castrate".

  39. Aricona Bob said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

    I heard the "eat what we can" joke as ending with the British lady saying, 'They said they ate what they could and what they couldn't, they could." The Yanks are a bit strange.

  40. Lars-Erik said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 3:48 am

    I once translated a manual for a hydraulic pump, produce of Spain (target language Swedish). It was written in English by the people of the factory. This was the best part: "Verify the bomb runs to the correct address."
    If you know some Spanish, you know that bomb and pump is the same word, "bomba". And address and direction is the same, "dirección". So the user was supposed to check the direction of rotation. A lot less dramatic.

  41. Rodger C said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    Any sightings of the Broadway musical set in Argentina, "Avoid"?

  42. Keith said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 8:37 am

    @Janice, re "Okay, what was your latest 'preneur?"

    This reply to Shawn Fanning, it makes more sense if she is replying with the idea that he has just said "I am entre preneurs", the final 's' being silent.

    So the conversation goes:
    – I am entre preneurs ("I am between takers")
    – Okay, what was your latest preneur? ("Okay, what was your latest taker?")

    Business is "entreprise", in French; literally "undertaking", and can be used just like in English.


  43. jan said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    From Irving Berlin's "As Thousands Cheer",

    "she certainly can can-can".

  44. jan said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    …and I just found this one.

    A Traveling Campaign Slogan
    Sally Thomason in the Tallinn airport saw a photograph of Barack Obama on the side of a large trash can, next to this legend:

    Yes We CAN

    Jah Meie Oskame!

    Turns out to be an ad for recycling. Not, say, an exhortation to dump the U.S. President in the trash. Whew.

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