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The humour of bad translation


Bad translation is an inexhaustible source of amusement. Raise your hand if you've never laughed at an unwittingly bizarre menu item in a foreign restaurant. No one? That's what I thought.


China is an especially fertile source of menu translation mishaps, due to the structure of the language and the poetic names of many dishes. Word-for-word translation is unfailingly hilarious: "chicken sperm balls", "self-restraint does the intestines", or "old vinegar hibernation of insects head" (find out what these refer to on this site). 


This scene from the IT Crowd sends up another type of translation mishap. After claiming to speak Italian, Jen finds herself in the position of interpreting at a meeting between her fatuous boss and a potential business partner from Italy. (Note that the actor playing the visiting businessman has a heavy English accent - unintentional humour, perhaps?)


Understanding nothing beyond the most basic pleasantries, Jen ploughs in with a mix of Italianised English ("io voglio extendere uno warmo welcome a mister Bernadelli") and Italian-sounding nonsense ("macarena macchiato, Sofia Loren").  


Particularly funny here is the combination of verbal and non-verbal misunderstandings. As the businessman becomes increasingly confused and annoyed, his body language amplifies until he finally storms out of the room. Jen's interpretation of his frantic gestures is just as tone-deaf as her interpretation of his words. She imposes a pre-determined business meeting script (exchange of pleasantries, expressions of goodwill) on a situation which is utterly at odds. 


Have you had a similar experience in another culture? I certainly have. The combination of unfamiliar scripts and non-verbal cues can be particularly unsettling. Food shopping in the open market in Vietnam was one such situation for me (there were no supermarkets in the early 90s). The "bargaining" script was completely new to me, and I found it exhausting. Unlike Jen, my interpretations skewed to the negative at first: I experienced the hawkers shouting for my attention as aggressive, and I was utterly unused to the "acting" required when bargaining (shake your head in disgust, walk away, wait for the price to be knocked down, turn around wearily while naming a lower price, etc.). 


I eventually learned to readjust my view of that particular script, by stepping back and using the ODIS method (observe, describe, interpret, suspend judgement). I never enjoyed the game, unlike some, but I detached it from negative emotions - and smiled more! 


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Viviane Lowe

traduction + communication