When translation mistakes are funny, and when they are not

translations are sacred

“Translations are sacred”, from the film Okja

Accidental translation mistakes can sometimes be amusing, though much to the chagrin of the translator most likely. Except in the case of Netflix which has allowed intentional subtitle translation mistakes for the sake of a good joke.

The Summer 2017 Netflix hit film Okja has fun with translation mistakes and translation humor.

The film Okja is about a little girl’s love for a pig. Read more deeply, it is about the debate over genetic modification and the meat industry. Childhood love and health both being topics where one wants good translation, right?

“Translations are sacred”

Okja is a film bridging Korean and American cultures and languages – and characters. A translator in the film intentionally botches some live interpretation to mislead his criminal comrades. He later repents by brandishing a tattoo on his arm which reads, “translations are sacred”.

This character’s intentional translation mistakes led to plot hilarity and tongue-in-cheek translation humor. However, it also is a serious reminder of how crucial translation is in the context of our globalized relationships and business affairs.

Translations are funny

The film’s actual translators also made intentional translation mistakes, providing another type of hilarity and humor.

Netflix allowed subtitle translation mistakes in Okja for the sake of a good cultural joke. Of course, only someone fluent in Korean and English would understand.

A character simply says his name in Korean, but the English subtitle reads, “Try learning English. It opens new doors!” It is a Korean cultural joke about the pressures to learn English in Korea.

You may need to see the film and be bilingual in Korean and English to get the joke, but I find it enjoyable enough to know about it and know that Netflix went for this.

Learn more English

Okja’s translation mistakes and translation humor are funny, though they also drive home how important it is in our globalized world to understand one another.

For ordering food or navigating car shares, perhaps using real-time, automatic translation apps from Microsoft, Skype and Google can help bridge the world. (See the other Summer 2017 hit film “Weit” for a scene about this).

But for important issues like genetic modification, meat industry, criminality and love, better use professional translation.

Social media just got more social. Just in time for the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

Photograph: The Nuisance Committee/Facebook

Whether you are a Trump supporter or not — and whether you care about the U.S. 2016 presidential elections or not –- the sign is funny, no?

“Donald Trump can’t read this, but he is scared of it.”

Not being fluent in Arabic, I would not have known what it meant. Except for the endless social media posts about it, and The Guardian’s coverage.

How many other election jokes and serious debates are we missing due to language barriers? A lot. Especially on social media, where thousands of tweets and Facebook posts in foreign languages fly right on by.

A new translation tool called Bridge is going to let us read those indecipherable posts, however. Bridge is making social media even more social.

Twitter translation

Bridge translates twitter and other social media platforms into multiple languages. This way, us digital humans can communicate – even more. Bridge uses only real humans for the translation of social media.

Bridge goes one step further.

According to mediaonline, Bridge “applies journalistic principles to curate and translate social media conversations among global and minority communities as a way to broaden the discourse.”

Roughly translated: Bridge hires journalists or people with “journalistic sensibilities who either come from the relevant community or understand the minority group well” to do and review the translations for accuracy.

Bridge has a special project for the U.S. 2016 presidential elections, as you can imagine.

U.S. 2016 presidential elections and translation law

The U.S. has a “Minority Language Provision” law which requires all federal documents to be translated into “minority languages” of the local population. The system is not without its kinks.

Recall the translation blunder for the U.S. 2012 presidential elections, when Chinese-speaking voters were directed to enter their “last 4 nuclear submarines” instead of the last 4 digits of their social security numbers. Good one, Illinois.

Another blunder occurred in Maryland. The summary of the ballot question concerning the same-sex civil marriage referendum completely misled Spanish-speaking voters.

The Minority Language Provision law requires ballots, voter registration, polling information and other logistical information for voting. Of course it does not require that the plethora of information, debate, accusations and promises made on social media be translated.

As digital beings, we know social media affects our thinking and possibly our voting choices.

For the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, some politicians are translating their own social media. Candidate Hillary Clinton has her official twitter feed translated into Spanish on a separate account.

Whether voting, supporting, arguing or trying to ignore the U.S. presidential elections, thanks to Bridge, you can now better navigate the social media around it and other topics.

AT&T used to tell us to reach and touch someone. Bridge is letting us reach out and understand someone. Or insult them. Or support them. Social media has never been more social.

The Paralympics Win the Gold Medal for Promoting the Translation of People-First Language

Katie Ledecky (left) and Jessica Long (right). Credits: Fernando Frazao & Clive Rose

Katie Ledecky (left) and Jessica Long (right). Credits: Fernando Frazao (l) & Clive Rose (r).

Olympics and Paralympics

We have all heard of Katie Ledecky, but what about Jessica Long?

Long is also an adorable athlete with an infectious smile. At 12 years of age she was the youngest competitor on the US 2004 team. She has held several world records in swimming.

The difference between Long and Ledecky is that Long is crippled, disabled, living with a handicap. However you say it, Long is missing both of her lower legs. She is a paralympian, competing in the Paralympics held several weeks after the Olympics.

Most Americans would say Long is “a person living with a disability.” This is known as people-first speech, invented by advocacy groups in the USA in the late 1980s. People-first speech rejects references such as “disabled person,” “deaf person”, etc. The idea is to focus on the person as a human being before any qualifiers or adjectives.

People-first language

I was a teenager in the USA at the time that people-first speech proliferated. I later worked under the guidelines of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in museums and schools. So I shudder each time I hear someone in German refer to Jessica Long as “eine Behinderte” – literally, “a disabled”.

Germans often convert adjectives into nouns, a convenient shorthand for an otherwise verbose language. This mechanism is in stark contrast to people-first speech. It not only puts the qualifier before the noun, it uses the qualifier as the noun. The same is true in German for entire groups of people, so “die Behinderten” means “the disabled”.

Of course, saying “die Behinderten” is snappier than translating the people-first phrase “people living with disabilities” into German. “Menschen mit körperlicher Einschränkung.” Even snappier, Germans use diminutives such as “die Behindis” or, for people using “Rollstuhle” (wheelchairs), “die Rollis”.


Is it just my American political-correctedness and brainwashing by the ADA, or is there something more to using people-first speech? And how much attention should translators give to it?

Language shapes our ideologies

According to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, language significantly shapes our ideologies. Therefore, use of the German plural noun “die Behinderten”, or worse the diminutive, “die Behindis”, may belittle the people to whom it refers. This use of a qualifier as a noun may cause German speakers to incorporate people living with disabilities differently into their world view than if they were using people-first speech.

When translating people-first language, it is of utmost importance that a translator be familiar with this concept. A translator should consult the guidelines of disability acts, advocacy groups, or an institution’s policies.

For the Paralympics athlete Jessica Long, translators should refer to her as “a person living with a disability.” This is according to the publishing guidelines of The International Paralympic Committee (IPC). The IPC online glossary commands use of people-first speech in English, French, and Spanish – no matter how long-winded for the latter two.

“This was indeed a conscious decision, as we wanted to focus on the person instead of the disability or impairment,” I was told by Eva Werthmann, the Media Operations Senior Manager at IPC. I was impressed. But with only three languages in the IPC glossary, what about German speakers and German media?

Will Germany embrace people-first language?

Times may be changing in Germany. At the 2016 Paralympics exhibit at the Ottobock Science Center in Berlin, the qualifier-as-a-noun shortcut was excluded from all text. Instead, the German text took up far more white space than the English text. This is because it used the lengthy words necessary to conform to people-first speech. Good for Ottobock!

Not only had the exhibit designers clearly not used machine translation (which in my experience never gives a people-first option), they had worked with translators aware of people-first speech and its promotion by the IPC. Whether or not those translators or exhibit designers buy into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, we do not know.

While some advocacy groups still debate using people-first language, it is clear that the IPC has chosen to promote it. So watch for Paralympics headlines like, “Jessica Long, swimmer living with a disability, steals hearts and beats records at Rio 2016 Summer Paralympics”.

Fouls and faux pas: The ins and outs of German and French UEFA football terminology, courtesy of The Goethe-Institut

flag-germany-franceThe UEFA European football championship sends emotions soaring with the thrills of competition. While countries compete against countries, good sportsmanship can also bring countries and people together. Sports translations are an important part of this.

Inspired by the 2016 UEFA championship, here are some fun facts around football terminology auf Deutsch and en français. There’s also a few common “faux amis” (false friends) to be aware of when using the two languages.

One of the funniest faux amis for a French speaker while watching a German match may be the term “das Trikot,.” In German, this noun refers to a sports jersey. In French, however, “le tricot” is a dressy sweater.

“I always picture the players running across the field in a smart cardigan instead of a football jersey,” says Eva Korb, the multimedia coordinator at the Goethe-Institut.

Ms. Korb just produced a series of free German-French learning materials on the UEFA Euro 2016, or Europameisterschaft – a word that’s a mouthful, as are many German nouns!

Why word-lego makes translating German difficult

I asked Ms. Korb about how she handles the long German nouns when doing sports translations.

“Obviously, German is a very creative language when it comes to playing word-lego! I often enough encountered problems while translating a German word into French or English. Sometimes I had to add a proper subordinate clause or something similar to express what I actually wanted to say. As annoying as this circumstance can be at times, I count it as one of the beautiful sides of each language – something unique that can’t be translated. There are so many aspects of language that cannot be translated mechanically,” reported Ms. Korb.

What inspired the production of the UEFA German-French learning materials? Ms. Korb said that, “we wanted to support the German teachers during the championship, since we know that it is often quite hard to motivate the kids just before the big holidays and with so many matches that consume all their attention.”

The materials are also helpful to translators and fun for any sports enthusiast. The materials are aimed at young adults and kids, making them fun for adults, too! Articles introduce foreign words and phrases but also include a lot of fun facts. Fun sports translations highlights include “les faux amis” section or absurd quotes.

Common (and fun) sports translation mistakes

Being a word nerd, I found a few German words in the materials that Google translator provided incorrect definitions for (Rechtsschuss, Kopfball, Zweikampfstark, even Europameisterschaft itself!).

I asked Ms. Korb what her experience has been with online translators and translation programs.

“While I was giving workshops in schools, I often encountered translations obviously done by semi-professional online-translators. I could always tell apart the results from the students who used online-translators and from the students who tried to write a text themselves. Personally, I don’t count too much on online-translators…”

As a lover of the German language, I poked around quite a bit with the UEFA football terminology and found another funny problem. If one doesn’t use the German double-S ‘ß’ letter in Google translate, confusion sets it. For example, “Freistoß” (free kick) becomes mistaken for “Freistoss” (free shock)!

Ms. Korb shared more about the ‘ß’ confusion for automatic translation.

“Of course, that can happen quite easily. Especially when it comes to an area or field, you don’t know a lot about. But that’s the problem with the automatic translators, isn’t it? They don’t give you a lot of options so you’re stuck with one version, not knowing whether it’s correct. I actually don’t even recognize the meaning of the second word in German except for the football-related one.”

When one word says it all

I loved one French article in the UFEA materials with the German title, “Tooooooooooooor!” (Goal!). A perfect sports translation.

I asked Ms. Korb about how she accounts for not just mechanical translation, but cultural translation. That is, this particular section did a great job, with just one word, of capturing the Germans’ robust enthusiasm around football.

“There are certain things you can only fully express in their meaning in one language. Often enough it’s the setting and the context that count a lot. As for football in German: We have a lot of commentators – probably all – who would yell “Toooooooooooooor” when someone is scoring a goal. I never heard a French commentator yell “Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuut” – but maybe that’s just me. Then again, this is an example for oral expression and not the written one.

For the translation of written language, I will put forward the classic example of “Gemütlichkeit”. That word is basically untranslatable and you will always have to describe or paraphrase it. Sometimes, languages simply adapt the German word, e.g. “Zeitgeist” in English and French. I think that tells you a lot about the culture of the people and that is one of the reasons why it is a great perk to know as many different languages as possible – language is culture and vice-versa,” reported Ms. Korb.

Do German and French have dialects?

The answer is a resounding yes! German has not just dialects but also varieties. These are different enough to be considered by some separate German languages.

I wonder then, what about sports translations for the different German vocabulary and syntax in Swiss-German and Austrian-German? And what about all of the different French translations? Would there need to be a different or modified French translation to accommodate for West African-style French, for example?

My favorite German sports word

On an end note, my favorite faux amis presented in the UEFA Goethe-Institut material is “die Blamage.” This is a French-sounding word which the Germans simply made up! German speakers use it to mean fiasco, which the French call a débâcle.

If you want to avoid your football or other specialized sports translations from being a débâcle, I suggest avoiding Google translate for even the quickest translations, and definitely for the “lego-block” nouns in German. Among other things, Google couldn’t tell me what “Europameisterschaft” meant. Hopefully you do by now?

Note: More faux amis can be found in the Goethe-Institut’s free online UEFA Euro 2016 brochure. It was produced by the Paris office, and includes two instructional language lesson packets as well. All are downloadable PDFs.