i have that dictionary at home it rules
“Excuse me, waiter? There’s a feather in my ice cream.”
Salaš Stupava, March 2012 (Lynda Steyne)
This was a very long time ago, before cell phones had cameras. To be honest, it was before cell phones. And digital cameras. It was probably before you were born. Making it from the era of big hair and disco music. The good ole days.
I’d been in Slovakia just over a year and, for spring break, I decided to take a recent American arrival to one of my favourite places on earth: the High Tatras. A Slovak friend booked us a room at a bed-and-breakfast (a room in a little old lady’s house) in Tatranska Lomnica and we headed for the hills. It was perfect – cold but sunny weather, knee-deep snow, passable beds and the mountains.
Our last night in Lomnica, we decided to try out the nearby hotel’s culinary capabilities. We sat down and, after a longish wait, were handed two menus by your typical surly Slovak waiter dressed in black and white. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the menus, although in Slovak, provided both English and German translations. How helpful! Well, maybe not.
I don’t have a picture of what we read because, like I said, this was before digital cameras (and when you’ve got only 36 photos on a roll of film, you tend to be choosey about what you take pictures of, especially in a dimly lit, Communist-era dining room), but indelibly exposed onto the film of my mind’s eye is a picture of that dessert item that struck me as the oddest thing I’d ever seen: Wren Ice. I’d already learned that ‘ice’ was the Slovak attempt at ‘ice cream’ and the result of German interference. But ‘wren’?! My most recent home had been South Carolina where the Carolina Wren is the state bird. It’s a very happy little creature with a twitching tail and a pretty song. I like wrens. I could not imagine why in the world Slovaks would crush up birds to make ice cream for tourists. Another dessert was Strawberry Glass (and they say chewing ice is bad for your teeth!) but my minimal Slovak could handle that mistranslation: glass meaning ‘pohar’, not ‘sklo’. The ‘Wren Ice’ would have to wait until I got back to Bratislava.
It was one of the first things I asked my best friend when I got back into town. “What could possibly be meant by this translation: Wren Ice?” Since my friend’s English was only a bit better than my Slovak, we checked one of the ubiquitous dictionaries (you remember them – those fat, little, red, white and blue books we used to use before Google Translate?) lying around the apartment to find out what ‘wren’ is in Slovak. The translation we found was ‘oriešok’ which is also the diminutive form or ‘orech’ which is - Aha! Walnut! Walnut ice cream! How relieved I was to discover that Slovakia did not pulverise our fine feathered friends in its quest for gastronomic delight! (Note: if you put ‘oriešok’ into today’s Google Translate, there’s not a ‘wren’ to be seen among the possible translations so don’t be surprised if you read somewhere that the state bird of South Carolina is the Carolina Nut.) And thus was born my desire for suitable, and understandable, translations on menus across Slovakia.
Unfortunately, the last 20 years have not seen much of an improvement in translations, whether on menus or anywhere else an English reader looks. There is still the ‘Wasp Nest’, ‘Shepherd’s Pocket’ and ‘Potatoe dumplings mit ship chees and back on’ being offered to the unwitting English-speaker (or Mandarin-speaker who isn’t offered a menu in his own language) who ends up playing it safe by ordering fried cheese or going to McDonald’s.
Times have changed, however, and we can make a difference! Today we are armed with little spy cameras that we take everywhere we go. It is time to ‘Name and Shame!’ those who willingly publish dodgy– and sometimes painful, completely unacceptable and often very funny – English translations. As you wander this planet full of dangerous (and humorous) translations this summer, be alert! Be ready with your handy little camera to catch the perpetrators of these crimes against the English language in the act! And then send that mug shot to Perspectives. To make it more interesting, in October (2012), the funniest/worst translation will receive a prize. (We don’t know what it is yet, but it’ll be really good!).
To enter: send your photo to firstname.lastname@example.org. The subject line must read ‘Dodgy Translations’. In the body of your email, please include your name (although only 1st names will be published online), in which type of establishment (pub, beach, gov’t office, museum, etc) you found the translation, the city, country and date. Photos that do not have this info will be disqualified.
Join the fight for responsible translation and save English-readers from painful, side-splitting laughter. Thank you.
Restaurant Rusovce, January 2012 (Lynda Steyne)
Pub Vienna, July 2011 (Lynda Steyne)