Humor and stories for interpreters: Interpreter error

David Bar-Tzur

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Man sitting in a confessional says to the priest, 'Forgive me, Father, for I have misinterpreted.'

Illuminated letter None so humiliating as when you are interpreting for a board of directors who all happen to be deaf and one of the deaf persons is spelling a name that I just couldn't catch... so on my third attempt to get the fingerspelling... another deaf person with very good vocal skills AND on the board finally blurts it out...

Thank God I had that "tough interpreter skin" and got past it and went on to finish the job!

- Name withheld

Illuminated letter I once got a call from an agency asking if I would be interested in doing some oral interpreting for a "psychology lecture". I felt comfortable enough to accept an oral assignment knowing that psychology would interest me and the vocabulary shouldn't be too taxing on my ears.

I arrived to find that it was a "cytology lecture" and the room was full of medical specialists, the presentation was a slide show, the presenters were foreign doctors, and my client was fluent in sign as well as speech reading. However, the room was dark. The presentation began with introductions followed by a quick see-if-you-can-spot-the-cancer-cell slide show. Then while the participants were viewing the slides there was commentary from a doctor with a very thick Russian accent who used the words "over here you'll see... and over here you'll see..."

My team interpreter arrived shortly after I had begun. He had been given information that this was a signing assigment for a medical meeting. Needless to say he did the majority of the work. The client had a flashlight in her purse for such an emergency. Whew.

- Name withheld

Illuminated letter I am a working free lance terp, pre-certified. I have had a wonderful mentor since this past April. My mentor and another terp were the hired terps for our state RID meeting last month. As a mentee, I was allowed to be the '3rd set of hands' for this annual meeting, with probably had about 100 interpreters/interpreting students present. I wasn't too nervous about this, right?? But one of the mentoring goals is to fight past the fear and try.

So... first round of interpreting, I get through pretty well. Second time rolls around, and now it is time to give out the Distinguished Service Award to a deserving terp in our chapter. (Now, think of that sign for award/trophy). I stood up there on a stage in front of a room full of terps and signed that we were now giving out the Distinguished Service Vagina. Notice how similar those two signs can be ??? And not just swiftly did I make the sign, but slow and clear was the buzzword for me. Though I certainly know the difference between the signs, I didn't realize I made that mistake. The meeting stopped, the Deaf person' s mouth dropped open, I saw the laughter around the room, but didn't know why. I saw my mentor wiping the tears from his eyes and signing/mouthing 'award'. I'm, like, right... award. He shakes his head and points to me and signs 'vagina'. I then realized my mistake.

OK... stay or go... what should I do... I can bolt and never be seen in the interpreting world again... but I just started laughing with everyone else, and I stayed and shortly thereafter, the meeting continued. When they resumed, this time I signed Distinguished Service A-W-A-R-D (fs!!). Everyone cheered and clapped !!

What could have been a horrible experience turned out to be a great one. I was 'feeling the love' in that room after the meeting. My state rocks !! So many terps told me that they have done similar things, that all terps do things like that. They all said I handled it well by staying and continuing. Many of the students there said that they were happy to see that a terp can make a mistake and that 'life continues on'. Nothing horrible happened, except for a good laugh and some comic relief.

- Debbie Warshauer

Stained glass bulletTashian, C. Lost in translation. What happens when an English phrase is translated (by computer) back and forth between 5 different languages? The authors of the Systran translation software probably never intended this application of their program. As of September 2003, translation software is almost good enough to turn grammatically correct, slang-free text from one language into grammatically incorrect, barely readable approximations in another. But the software is not equipped for 10 consecutive translations of the same piece of text. The resulting half-English, half-foreign, and totally non sequitur response bears almost no resemblance to the original. Remember the old game of "Telephone"? Something is lost, and sometimes something is gained. Try it for yourself! [Webmaster: Don't forget to check the box labelled "Include Chinese, Japanese, and Korean" for maximum confusion.]

Melby, A. K. (1995). Why can't a computer translate more like a person? Mostly about machine error, but there are some human boo-boos too.

One man says to the other who has a scowl on his face, 'Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?'

Illuminated letter According to a radio report heard today on NPR it seems, President Putin became angry at a reporter asking questions about Chechnya. Putin responded with a tirade about having the reporter step forward for permanent genital mutilation. It seems the various interpreters were so surprised at the comments that they simply left them out of their interpretation. Interesting.

- November 15, 2002

Illuminated letter Madonna was in Budapest filming some scenes from the movie "Evita" and the Budapest newspaper "Blikk" interviewed her. The questions were posed in Hungarian, then translated into English for her; her replies were then translated back into Hungarian. Then "USA Today" wanted a copy of it.

So. . . the Hungarian version was retranslated from Hungarian back into English for "USA Today" who only published part of it all. This is the whole version from the re-translation.

BLIKK: Madonna, Budapest says hello with arms that are spread-eagled. Did you have a visit here that was agreeable? Are you in good odor? You are the biggest fan of our young people who hear your musical productions and like to move their bodies in response.

MADONNA: Thank you for saying these compliments {holds up hands}. Please stop with taking sensationalist photographs until I have removed my garmets for all to see. This is a joke I have made.

BLIKK: Madonna, let's cut toward the hunt: are you a bold hussy-woman that feasts on men who are tops?

MADONNA: Yes, yes, this is certainly something that brings to the surface my longings. In American it is not considreed to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discotheque setting with hardy cocktails present. And there is a more normal attitude toward leather play-toys that also makes my day.

BLIKK: Is this how you met Carlos, your love-servant who is reputed? Did you know he was heaven-sent right off the stick? Or were you dating many other people in your bed at the same time?

MADONNA: No, he was the only one I was dating in my bed then, so it is a scientific fact that the baby was made in my womb using him. But as regards those questions, enough! I am a woman and not a test-mouse! Carlos is an everyday person who is in the orbit of a star who is being muscled-trained by him, not a sex machine.

BLIKK: May we talk about your other "baby," your movie then? Please do not be denying that the similarities between you and the real Evita are grounded in basis. Power, money, tasty food, Grammys -- all these elements are afoot.

MADONNA: What is up in the air with you? Evita never was winning a Grammy!

BLIKK: Perhaps not. But as to your film, in trying to bring your reputation along a rocky road, can you make people forget the bad explosions of "Who's That Girl?" and "Shanghai Surprise?"

MADONNA: I am a tip-top starlet. That is my job that I am paid to do.

BLIKK: OK, here's a question from left space. What was your book "Slut" about?

MADONNA: It was called "Sex", my book.

BLIKK: Not in Hungary. Here it was called "Slut." How did it come to publish. Were you lovemaking with a man-about-town printer? Do you prefer making suggestive literature to fast-selling CDs?

MADONNA: There are different facets to my career highway. I am preferring only to become respected all over the map as a 100% artist.

BLIKK: There is much interest in you from this geographic region, so I must ask this final questions: How many Hungarian men have you dated in bed? Are they No. 1? How are they comparing to Argentine men, who are famous being tip-top as well?

MADONNA: Well, to avoid aggravating global tension, I would say it's a tie (laugh). No, no. I am serious now. See here, I am working like a canine all the way around the clock! I have been too busy to try the goulash that makes your country one for the record books.

BLIKK: Thank you for the candid chitchat.

MADONNA: No problem, friend who is a girl.

Chinese interpreter admits she may have caused China's Cultural Revolution.

Illuminated letter The machine model

A cheap computer "translating" program recently gave the following renditon from English to Spanish:
"Sincerely, William D. Haddock" became

"Sinceramente, Guillermo D. pez semejante al bacalao (a fish)"

Illuminated letter Illegal trafficking is verboten!

Setting: European School in Brussels, c. 1980.

Parents Association meeting.

Evening, everyone tired.

Parents ask questions in German. German is notorious for verbs, indications of negatives, and sometimes other relevant information being, not infrequently, at the end of what may be a very long sentence. This clearly has implications for hapless interpreters.

Question (literally): Can you me tell when my daughter will XXXeducation also now in first year receive? [Note to those who know German - a) I can't quite remember the syntax, but the reference to the year of his daughter - first year corresponding to age 6 - was certainly a long way off in the sentence, b) the word was Verkehrsunterricht.]

Background: Belgium is not a country noted for its road safety awareness.

The word used, "Verkehr", means "traffic", and just as "intercourse" (or indeed, sometimes "congress") may or may not be of a sexual variety, so too Verkehr may sometimes mean sexual traffic, i.e. sex ->sex education, for Verkehrsunterricht in this context or alternatively "road safety instruction". On the other hand, normally when used as a euphemism for sex, there is normally an adjective used with the noun to make this clear.

But since a question had already been asked earlier in the evening about road safety instruction, I boldly went where all interpreters have to go at some stage - because I had to deal with the "Verkehrsunterricht" BEFORE I received the information (which I didn't know was coming) about the child's age. Clearly, I might have thought that at age 6, the father was more interested in her knowing how to cross a road safely than about the birds and bees. But you never know. . .

So I asked about sex education.

And survived.

- Ruth Morris

Illuminated letter Bilingual humour

In his entertaining book Native tongues (London: Panther Books, 1984), Charles Berlitz relates an incident involving Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev when he visited the USA and the UN. During an interview on US television, the interviewer using an idiom to indicate that he thought the Soviet leader's statements were not logical, said that Krushchev was 'barking up the wrong tree.'

Krushchev's interpreter had some difficulty finding an equivalent Russian expression and told Krushchev that the interviewer had said he was 'baying like a hound.'

Krushchev was not amused, and quite a bit of explanation was needed before the misunderstanding was cleared up and the Soviet leader regained his calm.

(There is a Russian equivalent which refers to the trepak, a lively Ukrainian dance: "Cousin, you started the trepak on the wrong foot.")

- Bilingual Family Newsletter

Illuminated letter Move that merchandise!

I was working between Farsi and English at a meeting. During the chit-chat phase (I've yet to meet with a Middle Eastern businessperson who just gets down to brass tacks). The Anglophone mentions that they're moving, as in "buying a new home and relocating". The Farsi term used for this concept roughly translates as "hauling stuff". I must've had a brain cramp, because what I literally said was "hauling place".

Why is this embarrassing? "Hauling place" /j^a kes^i kaerdaen/ is an idiom meaning "to pimp" or "to pander". The second the words left my mouth, I knew what I had said: that a client was, uh, moonlighting. The Iranians tried really hard to maintain composure, but to no avail. It took a few minutes to recover from that one.

The moral? Now I know that what the bi-bi push is about: native speakers make the best mistakes of all.

- Dan Parvaz

Illuminated letter Content knowledge helps!

I was interpreting on stage with a counter-part (my husband). By request, I was using PSE and he was using ASL, stage left and right. The forum was open and we had approx. 21 deaf consumers. I believe the split was almost 50-50 ASL/PSE. The speaker was talking about how the government was willing to spend millions on building an Olympic Village but was unwilling to spend $100 on the poor. An example was made that the average middle-class individual wouldn't give a beggar $0.25 but was willing to pay to see "Big Foot".

I thought to myself "BIG FOOT". . . where did that come from?????? Anyway, I didn't know the sign for BIG FOOT so I fingerspelled S-A-S-Q-U-A-T-C-H, then clarified BIG HAIRY ANIMAL LIVE MOUNTAIN. Well, you should have seen the deaf. 100%, not 50-50. . . 100% are staring at me with puzzled looks and then it dawned on one of them and they passed the message. I just continued interpreting but it still bugged me!

On the break, my husband approached me with a straight face, and asked, "How did you sign BIG FOOT?" I explained and he laughed and said he saw me. . . but he couldn't get my attention. So I asked how he signed it. He said, TRUCK WHEEL BIG. . . aauugghh!!! The deaf howled. . . the laugh was on me. Thank God I can laugh at myself.

Illuminated letter Actual Chinese movie subtitles.

1. I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way.

2. Same old rules: no eyes, no groin.

3. Gun wounds again?

4. Fatty, you with your thick face have hurt my instep.

5. A normal person wouldn't steal pituitaries.

6. The bullets inside are very hot. Why do I feel so cold?

7. Take my advice, or I'll spank you without pants.

8. Who gave you the nerve to get killed here?

9. I'll fire aimlessly if you don't come out!

10. You always use violence. I should've ordered glutinous rice chicken.

11. Beat him out of recognizable shape!

12. I have been scared ****less too much lately.

13. I got knife scars more than the number of your leg's hair!

14. Beware! Your bones are going to be disconnected.

15. How can you use my intestines as a gift?

Illuminated letter The revolting cigar-makeress.

The following is an extract from a synopsis of Carmen, thoughtfully provided some years ago by the Paris Opera for the benefit of its English and American patrons:

Carmen is a cigar-makeress from a tabago factory who loves with Don Jose of the mounting guard. Carmen takes a flower from her corsets and lances it to Don Jose (Duet: 'Talk me of my mother'). There is a noise inside the tabago factory and the revolting cigar-makeress bursts into the stage. Carmen is arrested and Don Jose is ordered to mounting guard her but Carmen subduces him and he lets her escape.

ACT 2. The Tavern. Carmen, Frasquita, Mercedes, Zuniga, Morales. Carmen's aria ('the sistrums are tinkling'). Enter Escamillio, a balls-fighter. Enter two smugglers (Duet: 'We have in mind a business') but Carmen refuses to penetrate because Don Jose has liberated from prison. He just now arrives (Aria: 'Slop, here who comes!') but hear are the bugles singing his retreat. Don Jose will leave and draws his sword. Called by carmen shrieks the two smugglers interfere with her but Don Jose is bound to dessert, he will follow into them (final chorus: 'Opening sky wandering life')...

ACT 3, a place in Seville. Procession of balls-fighters, the roaring of the balls heard in the arena. Escamillio enters. (Aria and chorus: 'Toreador, toreador, All hail the balls of a Toreador'.) Enter Don Jose (ARIA: I do not threaten, I besooch you'.) but Carmen repels him wants to join with Escamillio now chaired by the crowd. Don Jose stabs her (Aria: 'Oh rupture, rupture, you may arrest me, I did kill her') he sings 'Oh my beautiful Carmen, my subductive Carmen...'

Illuminated letter Advertising slogan translations gone wrong.

Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France called "Cue," the name of a notorious porno magazine.

An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market that promoted a visit by Pope John Paul II. Instead of "I saw the Pope (el Papa)", the shirts read "I saw the potato (la papa)".

Swedish vacuum-cleaner manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American campaign: "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux."

Kentucky Fried Chicken exported its "Finger Lickin' Good" slogan to the Chinese, it emerged as "Eat Your Fingers Off".

In Spain, the Parker Pen company pushed its products with the dullish poster slogan which should have read: "To avoid embarrassment use Parker Superquick". To the equal embarrassment of the manufacturers, the final version trumpeted: "To avoid pregnancy use Parker Superquick". Whether the Spanish swallowed it, or inserted it, remains a mystery.

Coors Beer lost its fizz in Spain as well when their hip phrase "Turn It Loose" came out as "Drink Coors and Get Diarrhea".

And when Otis Engineering took part in an exhibition in Moscow, a translator somehow managed to render a "completion equipment" sign into "equipment for orgasms".

"Body by Fisher", boasted the auto giant General Motors. "Corpse by Fisher" was how the Belgians read it.

Here is a look at how shrewd American business people translate their slogans into foreign languages:

When Braniff translated a slogan touting its upholstery, "Fly in Leather," it came out in Spanish as "Fly Naked."

Chicken magnate Frank Perdue's line, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," sounds much more interesting in Spanish: "It takes a sexually stimulated man to make a chicken affectionate."

When Vicks first introduce its cough drops on the German market, they were chagrined to learn that the German pronunciation of "v" is "f," which in German is the guttural equivalent of "sexual penetration."

Not to be outdone, Puffs tissues tried later to introduce its product, only to learn that "Puff" in German is a colloquial term for a whorehouse.

The Chevy Nova never sold well in Spanish speaking countries. "No Va" means "It Does Not Go" in Spanish.

When Pepsi started marketing its products in China a few years back, they translated their slogan, "Pepsi Brings You Back to Life" pretty literally. The slogan in Chinese really meant, "Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave."

When Coca-Cola first shipped to China, they named the product something that when pronounced sounded like "Coca-Cola." The only problem was that the characters used meant "Bite The Wax Tadpole." They later changed to a set of characters that mean "Happiness In The Mouth."

When Gerber first started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as here in the USA--with the cute baby on the label. Later they found out that in Africa companies routinely put pictures on the label of what is inside since most people can not read.

Bacardi concocted a fruity drink with the name 'Pavian' to suggest French chic ... but 'Pavian' means 'baboon' in German.

Parker Pens translated the slogan for its ink, "Avoid Embarassment - Use Quink" into Spanish as "Evite Embarazos - Use Quink" ... which also means "Avoid Pregnancy - Use Quink."

Jolly Green Giant translated into Arabic means "Intimidating Green Ogre."

But the blunders can work the other way round. Roger Axtell, who has written six books on the do's and don'ts of international business, cites several foreign brands which didn't click in the United States, including a French soft drink called "Pshitt" and the Japanese coffee creamer "Creap". I can't think why.

Illuminated letter The top ten misconceptions about translation and translators

10. Anybody with two years of high school language (or a foreign-tongued grandmother) can translate.

9. A good translator doesn't need a dictionary.

8. There's no difference between translation and interpretation.

7. Translators don't mind working nights and weekends at no extra charge.

6. Translators don't need to understand what they're translating.

5. A good translator doesn't need proofing or editing.

4. Becoming a translator is an easy way to get rich quick.

3. Translation is just typing in a foreign language.

2. A translator costs $49.95 at Radio Shack and runs on two 'C' batteries.

And the #1 misconception about translation and translators: 1. That marketing copy that took a team of 20 people two months to put together can be translated overnight by one Person and still retain the same impact as the original.

- Caitlin Walsh

Illuminated letter When an interpreter at RIT/NTID is not needed at their regular class because of student no-show or class cancellation, they are supposed to call the interpreting office and see if there are any uncovered classes they should go to. One interpreter who had recently been interpreting for a spirited debate on Gay rights in one class, was sent to a class he had never been to before. It's standard at the Institute when coming into a new class at the last minute to ask, "Are there any Deaf people here?" But the interpreter with the last class still buzzing in his head asked, "Are there any Gay people here?" The class was suddenly quite still, until the teacher broke in and quipped, "Don't ask, don't tell."

- David Bar-Tzur

Illuminated letter When Sprint in MD set up the video relay system on a pilot basis at a station, a male coworker trying this for the first time with lots of us overlooking had spelled out a 800 number which this expert terp dialed. It opened up with something very, very seductive, and the terp tried to keep a straight face. The male consumer then realized this terp thought he had wanted a 900 number. . . We could see that the terp was v e r y relieved to hang up right then and there.

- Nancy B. Rarus

Illuminated letter Finally it was completed, a computer program that could translate English into Russian and back. Now it was time to test it out. The following Bible quotation was used: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". This quotation was translated into Russian, but a test had to be made if the translation was correct, so the Russian version was translated back into English. The computer said: "The vodka is attractive, but the meat is rotten."

Illuminated letter This translation remains but an idea of the thing, and not the thing itself.

- Samuel Beckett

Illuminated letter FUNNY NONE!

There was an instance of an interpreter error which led on appeal to a conviction being overturned (Cuban man - convicted on drug charges for uttering the words "Hombre, ni tengo diez kilos!" - interpreted as "man, I don't even have ten kilos" - when in the context of the statement and given the dialect of the speaker this should have been rendered as "man, I don't even have ten cents!".

- Ricardo Nance

Illuminated letter Here are examples of translation software gibberish from a hospital brochure which a typesetter wanted to translate using software rather than a live person.

Radiology Services: Radiology Repara [Radiology Church Services]
Outpatient Services: Enfermo Ambulatorio Repara
Nursing Administration: Administracisn de la lactancia [Administration of Baby Nursing]
The care of the dying patient: El cuidado del muere paciente [The care of dying patience]
Please feel free to: Favor de tocar libre [Please fell liberated to]
Vending machines: Vending maquinas
Gift shop: Regalo va de compras
Swing bed program: Cama del balance Programa
Social services: Servicios de la tertulia [Party services]
[Signed by the Administrator] William D. Haddock: Guillermo D. pez semejante al bacalao [William D. Haddock fish]

- Ricardo Nance

Illuminated letter Recently, there was some discussion online in Jordan concerning the mistranslation of a well-known kingly quip: "al-insaanu aghla ma namluku". A clean translation of this phrase might be "people are our most important asset" or "people are our most important resource". A less sophisticated gloss could read "Man is the most expensive thing we own."

H.M. King Hussein said this during a time in Jordan's history when he was trying to make the government *appear* more democratic, so the straight gloss is a very unlikely rendition. Any Arab would know what was meant, but some enterprising translator didn't let that get in their way. Snippets from the dialogue follow.

"Right at the Jubilee traffic lights, a stand holding the famous saying of His Majesty King Hussein "Al-Inssan aghla ma namlok", with the compliments of AlBourouj corporation tel. 822016, that took the responsibility of translating it to 'Man is the most* expensive* we always have'"

"If I were a non Arabic speaker, I would have understood, that Jordanians are commodities being traded with an expensive price. How do you expect the non Arabic speakers to understand this saying? Who is responsible for putting such a stand with such a translation? I wonder if we have always been misunderstood by the west, because of our lousy translation!!!!"

"Appreciate who is responsible for this, to take the right action and ask this company to correct the translation to: 'Man is the most *precious* we always have'"

I would suggest another translation that would go as follows:

"Jordan's most precious asset is her citizens", . . . not literal, but conveys the true meaning of the saying. . .

. . ."Most expensive" . . . that's what you get when a COMMERCIAL entity starts translating !!!!

- Dan Parvaz

Illuminated letter Interpreter Faces Trouble Over Obscenity

                             UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A
                             United Nations interpreter was
                             in hot water on Friday after he
                             lost his place in a speech and
                             uttered an obscenity heard by
                             assembled heads of state at the
                             U.N. Millennium Summit.

                             The flustered English-language
                             interpreter made the
                             embarrassing error after
                             pausing for a long moment during a
                             speech in Arabic by Sudanese
                             President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

                             "We in Sudan shall spare no
                             effort to achieve these noble
                             goals and to cooperate with all
                             member states on the basis of
                             the principles of . . . oh
                             f---," the interpreter exclaimed.

                             ". . .that the, of the basis of
                             foreign, er, principle of
                             respecting the choices of
                             others and non-interference in the
                             affairs of other states," he
                             continued hastily.

                             A U.N. official said he would
                             listen to the tape of the
                             translation. "If anything not
                             proper has been said, we will take
                             action," added the official.

Illuminated letter I was subbing in an American history class. . . circa the first few presidents. . . and a particular treaty was being discussed. It was the "Pickney Treaty" I believe, but it sounded like Pygmy to me! Oy! Color my face embarrassed :-D

- cindy moore

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