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I found this by chance while surfing on Pinterest:

The Khmer warning reads:

1) Forbidden toward people who can’t swim.

Forbidden for those who can’t swim.

2) ហាមចំពោះអ្នកដែលមិនចេះហែលទឹក

3) /haam cɑmpʊəh neak mɨn ceh hael tɨk/

hām jompuah neak ("nek") dail men jeh hail teuk ("tuk")

Detailed deciphering word-by-word:

ហាម /haam/ = to forbid, prohibit; block, prevent
ចំពោះ /cɑmpʊəh/ =  toward, to; about; as for
អ្នក /neak/ = you, person, one, someone, one who
មិន /mɨn/ = not
ចេះ /ceh/ = to know; to know how (to)
ហែល /hael/ = to swim
ទឹក/tɨk/ = water

If only the translator had followed the Khmer more closely!

I'm always amazed at how many different languages Google Translate can deal with (the last time I counted it was over one hundred), and actually handle quite competently in most cases. 

[Thanks to Justin McDaniel, Steve O'Harrow, and Chhany Sak-Humphry]


  1. Paul Cowan said,

    September 24, 2018 @ 6:28 pm

    Very poetic Goût-Gueule.

    "Tell him to find me
    An acre of land
    Between the salt water
    And the sea strand"

  2. tangent said,

    September 24, 2018 @ 10:12 pm

    "No swimming if you can't swim" works even if it sounds funny. "No swimming" does not actually allow going in the pool to drown.

  3. B.Ma said,

    September 25, 2018 @ 12:32 am

    I once saw a sign that said, in English only, "If you can't swim, don't!"

  4. A1987dM said,

    September 26, 2018 @ 3:56 am

    Agree with tangent. The English version is perfectly understandable to me.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    September 27, 2018 @ 12:25 am

    I'll third it. The English is grammatical and clear.

  6. philip said,

    September 27, 2018 @ 11:08 am

    Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.

    That would work better on a sign …

  7. BZ said,

    September 27, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

    I can't imagine a situation where such a sign would be appropriate. Maybe "don't go in the water if you can't swim", but even that would require more explanation like "water is too deep to stand" or something like that.

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    September 28, 2018 @ 6:10 am

    The reason this works at all (in English) is the non-compositionality of "can't swim", which no one else seems to have noticed. In ordinary use, "can't X" (the positive form is less restricted) generally implies either physical inability or external prohibition. We don't normally use "can't" as a synonym for "don't know how to" or "never learned to", but 'swim' is one predicate where we do (and that's a property of 'swim', not of "can't" – the synonym "be able to" still works normally).

    So No driving if you can't drive or If you can't drive, don't would be silly because if you're unable to drive, you don't need reminding, and if you're forbidden from driving, you also don't (the sign tells you nothing new) – but with 'swim' that isn't the case, because of the default meaning of "can't swim".

    Still I'd prefer – and I imagine you'd get if this sign had been written in English – something a bit more specific and not subject to this charge, like 'Water unsafe …'.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  9. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 28, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

    I don't think it's at all the case that we don't normally use "can't" as a synonym for "don't know how to" or "never learned to":

    I can't dance.
    I can't juggle.
    I can't ride a bike.

    etc etc; none of which would normally be taken to imply either physical inability or any sort of prohibition.

  10. mollymooly said,

    September 28, 2018 @ 10:01 pm

    Compare "unauthorized use prohibited"

  11. Michael LaRocca said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 3:40 pm

    "The distance between the water's edge and the water" could pass for a Zen koan or one of Zeno's paradoxes. I will log off and contemplate it now.

  12. DWalker07 said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 5:26 pm


    "I'm always amazed at how many different languages Google Translate can deal with (the last time I counted it was over one hundred), and actually handle quite competently in most cases. In this one, however, what it offered was rather mysterious:
    "The distance between the water's edge and the water"."

    I'm confused about what "in this one" and "it" refer to, in "what it offered". What Google Translate offered for the whole phrase? That doesn't seem to make sense.

  13. Remi Camus said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

    Looks like someone played a trick on you. It's a joke, look carefully : the warning doesn't read មចំព នកដែលមនិពច ដែលទឹក (Google translate ""The distance between the water's edge and the water")
    It reads ហាមចំពាះអ្នកដែលមិនចះហែលទឹក
    Google translate: "Prohibit someone who does not swim"

  14. Andrew Usher said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

    David Eddyshaw:

    Thanks for your examples, but I don't think they falsify my claim – they do show a range of usage of "can't" with various complements. In the cases 'dance' and 'juggle', as with the more obvious 'sing', the normal kind of meaning is 'well, maybe I am able, but I'm so lousy you wouldn't want to see it, and it would be embarrassing'. With 'ride a bike' I really would assume physical inability out of context – only my knowledge of the person making the claim would rule it out. The point is that "can't swim" is at least somewhat idiomatic – enough so that it can be used on signs, even.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

    @Remi Camus

    Thanks for catching the discrepancy. Nobody played a trick on me; software did.

    I actually had everything checked by two Khmer specialists, so I was confident that I had the transcriptions right.

    Here's what happened. I had the Khmer transcriptions both in a pdf and in a Word doc. The problem was that the Khmer script didn't show up in the doc on my computer, so I used the pdf, which showed everything perfectly. Furthermore, as I've always been told, pdfs are more stable and truthful than docs. Such was not so in this instance. Instead, there was a gremlin in the pdf. It was the pdf that switched the Khmer to the phantom wording that you pointed out. It did so bizarrely and identically each time I entered it into my browser. Strangely, however, when I entered the question marks inside of boxes from the seemingly courrupted doc into my browser, the Khmer letters all came out right, and that's what you see in the post now.

    I learned a lesson from this experience: pdfs are not always that reliable when you're trying to copy from them into a different medium!

  16. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 8:57 pm


    "I'm confused about what 'in this one' and 'it' refer to, in 'what it offered'."

    No need for confusion. It's quite clear:

    "in this one [case]" and "it [i.e., Google Translate]"

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