Monthly Archives: September 2014

Lost and disgraced in translation

The Jerusalem Post of the 4th September had a really interesting opinion piece, written by a former pilot in the Israeli Air Force, which included this memorable phrase: “Choosing an unprofessional translator without the appropriate credentials is the equivalent of having an appendectomy performed by someone who studied medicine by watching the medical drama ‘House.’”

Essentially, the article was a diatribe against sloppy, unprofessional translation, and especially against government agencies which hire translators/interpreters on the basis of cost rather than quality.

One particular story caught our attention. The quote below is taken directly from this article and needs no explanation.

“In 2012, I inspected the simultaneous interpretation at an international conference. In my left ear, in Hebrew, I heard: “This model can hardly be seen as a representative of the phenomenon we are exploring,” while in my right ear, in English, it was: “I – eh – think that this – eh – this is very very – eh – interesting.”

After a short while, the Russian representative said: “They call this interpretation? Do they think I’m stupid?” Sure enough, he was soon gone, along with others who had originally planned to spend the entire day.”

On other occasions, the author, Reuven Ben-Shalom, had to re-write a formal, military document because it contained not just basic mistakes (systematic instead of systemic, deadline instead of timeline) but also insensitive translations which would make the document less likely to receive a sympathetic welcome in some international quarters.

He then recounts how during the recent visit of the pope to Israel, the firm chosen to provide technical services was not up to the job. There was no booth, the audio equipment didn’t work and no one, including the pope, could hear the interpretation. Ben-Shalom, rightly, describes this as ‘a disgrace’.

He then tells us that subtitles in movies and TV shows are probably the most commonly seen examples of translation in Israel.
 As a result, punch-lines of jokes are omitted and idiomatic phrases are translated literally. He cites the example of Frank Underwood in House of Cards, saying: “If a bullet comes my way… I must be quick to duck.” The Hebrew translator got this more than a bit wrong, and the subtitles read: “I must be quick as a duck.”

A great article, and not just because I agree with its sentiments, but also because it shows how, in a dangerous and internationally sensitive part of the world, interpretation and translation really do matter and skimping on quality just for the sake of a cheaper price is not the right thing to do.

David Orr, Director, Global Connects

Football – the language of united nations


The breaking news that Scotland has been awarded host city status for the 2020 Euro Championships, one of 13 cities to be chosen, is fantastic for all those who love our nation’s favourite sport – and also for those who see it as a means to bring nations together in fierce but friendly sporting rivalry. As the world increasingly seems to be a dangerous place, it’s great that so many countries can come together in this way.

Hampden Park, the National Stadium, will play host to a last 16 match as well as three group games during the tournament. There had been a concern that Scotland might miss out as there were three other bids from the British Isles.   In the end, Glasgow Dublin and London were chosen but Cardiff was unsuccessful.

One thing we know, from a professional point of view, is that there is no tournament without professional translators and interpreters. From the post-match managers’ conferences to the hotel bookings and travel arrangements, there will be a need, at all of the 13 cities chosen, for someone to provide these services.

In the aftermath of the referendum result, we also have a match coming up very soon against the ‘auld enemy’, or England as they are better known.   Given the passions around the referendum vote, this is a great opportunity for all Scots to show that we are both united and sporting as we welcome our nearest neighbours for what we are sure will be a competitive match, played, we hope, in the best sporting spirit.   No interpretation or translation will be necessary for that game!

Anthony Madill, Global Connects

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Avoid clichés like the plague

We all know what a cliché is, don’t we?

Well, I think so, but an interesting new book by lexicographer Orin Hargraves (It’s Been Said Before, published on July 30 by Oxford University Press), makes an interesting case for the differences between clichés and idiomatic expressions.

Hargraves makes the distinction between an idiom, which he defines as an expression whose meaning isn’t obvious from the words in it (he uses the example of ‘kick the bucket’), and a cliché, which he suggests ‘puts the audience on automatic pilot’ because it suggests they’re about to hear something they have heard many times before.

Surely, that is precisely what a cliché is – something that is, to throw up a phrase that perhaps sits in the no-mans land between cliché and idiom, ‘done to death’.


A cliché is, in the right circumstances, a useful addition to speech or the written word. But we tend to forget that other languages have clichés too. Here, for example is a Spanish link to common clichés in films:   You don’t have to be able to speak Spanish to understand some of these. ‘Mira detras tuyo” (look behind you) is universal in the film industry, as well as in pantomime in the UK (better translated as “it’s behind you!” by excitable, small children!).  Similarly, the clichéd Frenchman, with his beret and baguette are stereotyped wonderfully in this YouTube video, with over 1M views (this is recommended viewing – great fun!):

One thing we, as languages professionals, are well aware of, is that we’re never going to abolish the cliché.   And we can always argue over what exactly constitutes one, or not as the case may be. So if you’d like to have a go at the quiz which Time magazine published to test whether readers can differentiate between clichés and idiomatic expressions, as defined by Mr Hargraves, it’s available here:

Good luck. And remember, when all is said and done, a cliché is nothing to get excited about!

The best translation cock-ups – Part II

Part II – more advertisements – warning, parental advisory


If you were with us last time (and if not, you can have a look at that post after you’ve read this one), we’re having a droll look at some of the best examples of where translation has gone wrong, and noting that although this can happen to the best of us, if it happens to the big companies listed here, how much more important is it to ensure that when you need something translated you get it right first time.

Parker Pens is a prestigious brand. You wouldn’t be embarrassed by having one in your pocket.   However, Parker were a tad red-faced when they marketed its Quink ink in Spain under the slogan “Evite Embarazos – Use Quink”, which does mean, “Avoid Embarrasment, Use Quink”, but unfortunately also translates as “Avoid Pregnancy – Use Quink”.

Ikea has, as you probably know, lots of great, cool-sounding names for its products. However, called a children’s workbench “Fartfull” probably wasn’t their best idea.

Kentucky Fried Chicken’s slogan is world-famous. Sadly, “Finger-lickin’ good” was mistranslated in China as “eat your fingers off”.

That, however, is as nothing compared to Otis Engineering’s gaffe at an exhibition in Moscow. The sign “Completion Equipment” was rendered ito “equipment for orgasms”.

The Italians have not featured yet, but they were presumably not buying Schweppes Tonic Water in large quantities when they say a campaign advertising it as “Schweppes Toilet Water”.

We all know the Jolly Green Giant sweet corn.   The Arab world, on one famous occasion, had it presented to them as “Intimidating Green Ogre”. Not what you want on the side of your plate…

And finally, Coors, the US brewer, made a real mess of their campaign in Spain when their usual slogan, “Turn it loose” was translated as “Get Diahorrea”.

Yes, as we said at the start, it’s too easy to laugh at this sort of stuff.   But please feel free to point out our next mistake. Especially if we mistranslate “Schadenfreude”!