Lost...in Translation: Understanding Language

Written by Michael Henry |
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Language is a wonderful thing, the prime means of communication with our fellow humans. But languages, or different ways of expressing the same thing, can cause untold problems for those who send or receive these messages. For that is what conversation is – a stream of messages back and forth between individuals.

How many times have I blessed the day I was born into an English speaking society for I’m constantly reminded of the difficulty involved in learning any language but English must be one of the most challenging. Consider, if you will, the plight of a young Japanese student struggling with the vagaries of English consonants.

How to make the ‘R’ roll off the tongue and not sound like an ‘L’ is a major challenge for our young student. I once, in a fit of mischief, gave a student the task of repeating the well-known tongue twister “Red leather, yellow leather.” It was a cruel prank but one which resulted in fits of laughter from both student and tutor. Listening to, “Led rether, yerrow rever,” repeated at speed was as funny as being rib-tickled!

Of course, that’s only one of countless examples. The main challenges come with expressing the correct meaning with not only the right choice of words but coupling those words with the appropriate accentuation, pronunciation and intonation. Something is bound to get lost in translation!

I recall one of the funniest stories I ever heard was recounted to me by my friend, Paul who was of Italian decent and served his apprenticeship as a hairdresser in London’s West End during the 60’s. The salon in which he learned his trade was non other than that owned by the famous Mr. Teasy Weasy, Raymond Bessone, whose outrageously flamboyant style guaranteed him notoriety on the social scene of the day. Raymond developed a huge following among the socialites and spoke with a very thick Italian accent although he was born and raised in London. He was married to an actress by the name of Rosalie Ashley who was hated by the salon staff as she would occasionally make an appearance in the salon and order the girls around as if they were slaves. But girls will be girls and, when ordered to make Madame Bessone a coffee, they would gleefully stir it with a greasy hair comb then watch with great satisfaction as Madame drank it.

Raymond smoked only one brand of cigarette – Chesterfields - and when he ran out one day he ordered the junior girl apprentice to go out and buy him a pack. The girl, petrified at being charged with this special task and not really understanding a word of what Mr. Raymond had said, due to his heavy accent, scurried out to the shops and returned twenty minutes later with a half a pound of chopped liver! A perfect example of what can happen when something is lost in translation!    

Many years ago, when I was based in Mozambique and trying to absorb as much of the colonial language as I could, I thought my progress was pretty good after only a few months in the country. There came a day when I needed to arrange a meeting with a friend who was a local and spoke next to no English. He explained to me in Portuguese that he would leave his office at 4pm next day and would head to our agreed meeting spot in an outer suburb. I understood him to say that, in order for me to get there, I should go to the local bus station and take the bus marked ‘Machimbombo’ which I assumed was the name of the suburb. As he was explaining this, an ancient bus rattled by in a cloud of dust and he pointed to it vigorously as a way of emphasizing what he was saying. I nodded and assured him in my rudimentary Portuguese that I understood and would be there as arranged.

The next day found me at the bus station surrounded by milling crowds, inhaling copious quantities of petrol fumes and searching desperately for the bus marked Machimbombo.

I began to worry when I could see no sign of the destination I was seeking. I finally plucked up courage and approached an African gentleman dressed in full business attire – double breasted suit, spotless white shirt and navy blue tie. I asked where I could find the bus to take me to Machimbombo and he looked at me like I was mad.

Then he started laughing and said, “May I ask where are you from, sir?”

“I’m from Australia,” I replied.

“Well, I should tell you that ‘Machimbombo’ is the local African dialect for the word ‘Bus’! Here, we often mix local words with Portuguese!”

Imagine my chagrin at realising that I had almost totally misunderstood the previous day’s exchange with my friend and that resulted in one rendezvous that was never kept!

Of course other examples are legion and much funnier – especially official signs and slogans which, when translated into another language, don’t quite get it right.

Here are few examples:

KFC opened their first store in China where their famous slogan, “Finger lickin’ good” was translated as “Eat your fingers off.”

The HSBC was forced to launch a huge rebranding campaign some years ago when its catchphrase “Assume Nothing” was translated in many countries as “Do Nothing” and this cost the company $10 million to rectify.

An expat Brit who had just arrived in Japan from his previous posting in Italy, attended a welcoming party thrown by his new Japanese colleagues. When glasses were raised, the Brit exclaimed “Cin cin” as he would in Italy. This produced giggles and embarrassing coughs from his Japanese hosts. Cin cin in Japanese means “Small penis.”

And staying in Japan…in a Tokyo hotel a sign reads: ‘Guests are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.’ 

 In Thailand another hotel sign advises:  ‘Please do not bring solicitors in to your room.’

And another blooper from Japan: A Japanese company selling knives on the American market included this warning with its products: Caution: Blade extremely sharp. Keep out of children.


These few humorous examples of how intended meanings can get lost in translation serve to highlight the amazing variety and richness of the world’s languages.

It could be argued that whatever we want to say and however we want to say it is governed by our use of language and we should always recognise this and strive to express ourselves with clarity and accuracy. But perhaps that is easier said than done, after all when it comes to different languages and cultures there’s always a very good chance that something will get lost in translation.




Copyright © TravelDailyLife.com

Author: Michael Henry
Born in Ireland and raised in England, I have travelled widely both before and after my arrival in Australia which I have called home since 1966. I have a Certificate III in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). I have also edited texts for published works. Now, with working life behind me, I'm looking to indulge in my passion and see what the future holds...
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