C’est what? Tackling language problems

Turns out it’s easy to get lost in translation. The Word Nerd discusses the impossibility of cross-lingual communication

Translation fallacy at work?
Translation fallacy at work?

In 1993 the California Milk Processor Board began the now famous “Got Milk?” advertising campaign. This new slogan, which teasingly presented the audience with the possibility of taking out cookies or pouring a bowl of cereal, only to discover they had run out of milk, quickly boosted the flagging milk sales in California, instilling in consumers a sense of the necessity of always having milk on hand.

Encouraged by the early success of the advertisement, the Milk Board turned their attention to the large Latino community in California. Unfortunately, after briefly attempting to adapt the original slogan, the Milk Board realized they would have to employ a different tactic if they wished to successfully reach the Spanish-speaking demographic—apparently this new audience was less than responsive to the company’s translation of the “Got Milk?” slogan, which read something along the lines of “Are you lactating?”

Another example of advertising companies committing a translation faux-pas was an early Pepsi campaign in China. Attempting to carry over the English slogan “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation,” the company ended up promising citizens that Pepsi would make their ancestors come back to life. In these and other cases, companies have simply failed to accurately translate their slogans, resulting in a different message than intended.

When Parker Pen marketed its Quink pen in Mexico, attempting to promise that it would never “Leak and Embarrass You,” the marketing company mistakenly translated “embarrass” to the Spanish verb “embarazar,” which means “to impregnate.”

The mistakes made by these businesses, while humorous, are not necessarily the result of their own folly, but rather speak to the incredible complexity of human languages. Mass globalization has introduced marketers to a multiplicity of other cultures and dialects, all of which have their own idiosyncratic grammar, vocabulary and cultural associations and don’t necessarily facilitate smooth translation. So it’s not surprising that once and a while advertisers misjudge a particular slogan or mistranslate a particular word, presenting foreign consumers with a vision of their product slightly different than the one anticipated. In fact, the linguistic concept of translation fallacy states that it’s impossible to ever truly translate across the language barrier.

One common example of translation fallacy is the Chinese New Year greeting, “Gung Hei Fat Choi”—because of the fundamental differences in grammatical structure between English and Chinese, this statement can never be fully translated from one language to the other. An attempt at direct translation would only result in the seemingly disconnected string of words, “Congratulate happy grow rich.”

Although mistakes that take place within the relatively low stakes of the advertising world are merely frustrating or amusing, mistranslation and translation fallacy can have serious implications if they occur in diplomatic or potentially hostile situations. For example, before entering World War II, United States intelligence managed to tap into and decode Japanese radio transmissions, which they believed gave them complete insight into the plans of their potential enemies. But historians have looked back over these transmissions and determined that, in many instances, American forces may have misinterpreted Japanese intentions due to the considerable differences between English and Japanese, made even more convoluted by the intermediating code. According to historian Keiichiro Komatsu, the Japanese may have been much more willing to negotiate peace than the Americans were led to believe, because the false translations “gave an exaggerated impression of Japan’s aggressive attitude” and encouraged already existing feelings of distrust.

Another historic example of translation gone awry is that of the bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino by the allies in 1944. The allied troops had access to German communications and, like the advertisers for Parker Pen, a young officer mistranslated a crucial word when deciphering an intercepted message—only in this case, when he misinterpreted the German abt (abbot) as a short form of abteilung (battalion) the implications were much more serious than a drop in international sales.

Thinking the Germans were now housing a battalion of troops in the abbey, the allies launched a complete artillery blitz on Monte Cassino, demolishing priceless architecture, killing more than 250 civilians and ultimately providing the Germans with an ideal tactical stronghold in the ruins of the abbey.

So what can we learn from the mistakes of our unfortunate forbears? Completely understanding something as unique and intricate as a language is tricky, and translating that from one to another is even trickier. Living as we do in an age where cross-cultural communication—whether chatting on the internet, investing in foreign markets or at a conference for the United Nations—is a part of everyday life, we are continually forced to acknowledge the shortcomings of translation.

Whether we’re doing battle for our country or for our pocketbooks, the first step to succeeding in cross-linguistic communication is to proceed with caution—and perhaps to invest in a qualified interpreter.

Have a secret?

Postscript is now accepting submissions for Post(Script)Secret, a look at the online sensation created by blogger Frank Warren’s website, postsecret.com—an ongoing, online community art project where people mail in their secrets on one side of a postcard.

Take a secret you’ve never told anyone and put it on one side of a 4x6” postcard.

Make sure it’s legible, anonymous and clear—embellish it as necessary.

Drop it off at the Journal House or mail it to:

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Entry deadline November 10.

Secrets will be published in the Postscript section later that month.

Click here for more information.

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