Translation humor

Published 8:06 am Thursday, September 20, 2018

This semester I’m teaching a class in translation from Spanish to English. One of the texts I enjoy consulting is Jack Child’s Introduction to Spanish Translation. In each chapter he includes an example of a translation gone wrong, many of which provoke a laugh. Translations can go wrong for many reasons but at the core are a few unalterable facts about how languages are organized and how they function. First, there are very few one to one correspondences between words. Second, different languages can organize their respective grammars in dramatically different ways. What may be a verb in one language may show up in another language as a preposition. Third, a language can possess cultural categories or make distinctions that simply don’t exist in another language. All of this makes translation a combination of science and art. When translations between language don’t work, the results are often humorous.

Some of Child’s more memorable examples of faulty translations include the following announcement for a restaurant: Visit our restaurant, where you can eat Middle East foods in an European ambulance. And from a hotel in Europe: The water in this hotel is safe to drink. It has been passed by the manager. An example from a company that provides horse drawn carriage rides: Take one of our horse-drive city tours. We guarantee no miscarriages. An ad for an automobile company promised: The comfort of the ride based on the suspension, plus the front-wheel traction amazes virgin passengers.

Child also addresses translations that depend on plugging in the first or primary meaning provided in a dictionary. The following message was written in a Christmas card by a speaker of Spanish who was in the process of learning English: May the Lord bless you and can you. The Spanish speaker had looked up the verb to preserve in Spanish and had found the English translation to can, as in to can preserves. There is also an interesting case of a translation that was translated from English into Russian and then back into English. An American working in Russia received a telegram about his daughter’s comportment in school. The message should have read: Harriet has been suspended for minor offenses. Unfortunately, the message the father received was: “Harriet hung for juvenile crimes.”

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Examples of poor translations from English to Spanish also abound. Child cites a survey sent to households in one county in California that included the very garbled question: El jefe de la casa es de Spanish/Hispanic origin o decente? Translation: Is the boss of the house of Spanish/Hispanic origin or decent? And then there’s always Chevrolet’s unfortunate marketing campaign in the 70s for the Nova in Mexico. While it proved to be a popular model in the U.S., the company was unaware that in Spanish “no va” means “doesn’t run”. Finally, in the 70s the airline Braniff ran an ad campaign in Latin America advertising their leather seats but in doing so picked an unfortunate phrase to translate leather. They advertised it as flying “en cuero”. While cuero does indeed mean leather, “en cuero” means naked.

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is