In 1987, KFC opened its first outlet in China, a chicken nugget’s throw away from Chairman Mao’s mausoleum in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Now, 25 years later, KFC is the premier fast food chain in the country, generating almost $2 billion in annual profit (for reference, that is more than is made by all of the KFCs, Taco Bells, Pizza Huts, and Long John Silvers restaurants in America combined, and, in fact, more than the annual GDP of some countries). When the store first opened, however, the company’s success was far from guaranteed. Of a series of missteps, the most memorable was the slogan. At the time, the company’s slogan was “finger-lickin’ good.” When they translated it into Chinese, they began inadvertently advertising it as “eat your fingers off.”
It is easy to laugh at this, or any of the other countless examples of mistranslations from one language to another. There are entire websites dedicated to mocking poorly translated signs (especially in China, Japan, or southeast Asia). Many of the mistakes are probably the result of somebody using an online translator or a dictionary without having any of the contextual knowledge of the language to make any sense out of it all.
Online translators are notoriously unreliable. For example, I just plugged the first paragraph of this column into Google translate, putting it into Japanese then back into English:
In 1987, KFC will open the first outlet in China, the chicken nuggets are discarded from the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in the center of Tiananmen Square. Now, 25 years later, to generate the $2 billion almost yearly profit (for reference is a fast food chain of the best, it is more than that made by all of the KFCs in this country, KFC is octopus restaurant) Long John Silver America, and the combined Bell, Pizza Hut and, in fact, than some of the country’s annual GDP. However, when the store is opened for the first time, the company’s success was far from guaranteed. Among the series of missteps, it was the most memorable slogan. “When translated into Chinese, it was. They will advertise it began accidentally” At the time, “finger licking” good company slogan eat your fingers off. ‘
If you understand anything about the lexical and syntactic features of the Japanese language, you can start to see where some of the mistakes appear. The underlying structures of English and Japanese are fundamentally different. Even using a more approachable juxtaposition, like French or Spanish, you can’t just change each word in a sentence to its equivalent in another language and create an intelligible utterance. Even if you look at examples that are almost universally understood direct translation breaks down. “Buenos días” is widely recognized as “good morning” or “good day,” but in Spanish it is technically plural, so a literal translation would be “goods days.” This may seem like nit-picking, but my underlying point remains clear.
In fact, people who are bilingual understand this implicitly, even if they don’t realize it. When you become fluent in another language, you don’t think about things in your native language and “convert” it; that is, if you have been living in Germany for 9 years, you aren’t constantly thinking to yourself, “Let’s see … ‘where’ is ‘wo’, ‘is’ is ‘its’, ‘the’ is ‘die’ … ‘Wo ist die toilet?'” Fluency is a function of internalizing the language, so when you see a cat you conceptualize it both as a cat and as a gato, chat, neko, eesa, popoki, , or whatever other language you choose. In fact, the prevailing theory in cognitive science is that when you switch from one language to another, your brain acts by inhibiting the language you don’t want to speak, instead of promoting the one you do. So when you see a cat and want to tell your Spanish friend, your brain is specifically deactivating the mental connection between the word “cat” and its perceived meaning, which forces you to use the connection with the word “gato” (or whatever) by default.
And this is just dealing with words that actually have direct equivalents across languages. This isn’t always the case; most languages contain words whose meaning cannot be easily expressed in a single word in another language. There are dozens of examples:
-“Ilunga”. In the Tshiluba or Luba-Kasai language, the national language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “ilunga” is often used as a first name, but also to describe a person who is ready to forgive an abuse the first time, tolerate it a second time, but never a third time. According to a BBC survey of linguists, it is the most difficult word in the world to translate.
-“Aemulatio”. A Latin word, describing a new version or reprint of an older literary work, specifically one that has been improved to show respect for the original.
-“Waldeinsamkeit”. A German word invoking the feeling of solitude one feels when in the forest. (To be fair, some languages, like German and Welsh, are bad examples, because they are agglutinative. Meaning that words can be formed by adding other words together.)
-“Toska”. In the words of Vladimir Nabokov, “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
-“Jayus”. In Bahasa Indonesian, jayus is a joke that is incredibly bad or told extremely poorly but you laugh anyway.
There are some languages, like Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese, that don’t have a direct equivalent of the English “have.” Instead, they use derivations of “to be.” Japanese sometimes uses a word that more properly translates as “carry” in place of have. Albanian has 27 different words of mustache. English has more words related to sheep husbandry than most European languages combined (the original speakers of English were mostly shepherds, and the practical influence of their lifestyle persists in our language), such as “folding” (originally referring to confining sheep to a specific grazing area) and “greasy” (sheared wool before cleaning).
Finnish and Polish have verb tenses that imply whether the activity is done frequently, irregularly, or only once. Irish Gaelic has passive prohibitive verb tenses, which imply both a directive to an individual person as well as wider societal disapproval. Turkic languages have suffixes that indicate that the information given by the speaker was learned indirectly. Japanese lacks a future tense, and Chinese lacks verb tenses entirely. German and Dutch have modal particles such as “doch”/”toch”, which can be used to mean “Don’t you realize that…” or “It is true, though someone is denying it.” In Spanish and Portuguese, there are two different verbs that mean “to be,” each being used in different types of situations.
These are all very simplistic examples. The job of a translator gets infinitely more difficult when one starts trying to translate, say, puns or poems. In Spanish, there are puns involving the word “lavandería,” or laundromat, that are completely lost in translation (“lavanda” is the Spanish word for lavender, and “-ería” is a standard suffix to indicate a store or shop. So “zapato” is shoe, and “zapatería” is shoe store). In Italian you can make a joke based off of the similarity of the words “tradutorre” (translator) and “traditore” (traitor). Puns are inherently a function of the duality between meaning and sound, which shifts from language to language.
And what about poetry? Not only does meaning need to be preserved, but rhythm, meter, rhyme, etc. For example, the poem “Ein Fichtenbaum” by the German poet Heinrich Heine, in the original:
Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam
Im hohen Norden auf kahler Höh’.
Ihn schläfert, mit weisser Decke
Umhüllen ihn Eis und Schnee.
Er träumt von eine Palme,
Die, fern im Morgenland,
Einsam und schweigend trauert
Auf brennender Felsenwand.
You can translate this literally, and you end up with something like this (bracketed words are alternate possible translations):
A spruce-tree [fir tree/pine tree] rises [stands] alone [solitary/forlorn/lonely]
In the high North on a bleaker [bald] height;
It sleeps with a white blanket [cover/spread],
Enfolds [enwraps/encases] in ice and snow.
It dreams of a palm tree,
Which, far [afar/remote] in the orient [morning-land],
alone [solitary/forlorn/lonely] in silence [muted/close-mouthed] grieves [mourns]
I [at/on] raging [burning] rock face [rockwall].
Individual German words in the poem can be translated to different things in English, which can radically change the meaning of the text. But we’ve already sacrificed the regular stress patterns of the original lines, the caesura in the second line, the rhyme of lines 6 and 8, and the alternation of masculine/feminine verb endings. When dealing with poetry, the simple act of translation is removing intentional aesthetic components of the piece. (On a side note, in a quick Internet search I have found at least 15 different English translations of “Ein Fichtenbaum,” with radical differences between them). There is a balance between semantic and lexico-synctactic/phono-acoustic features that cannot possibly be preserved, forcing the translator to make subjective decisions as to whether to choose new words to fit a metric scheme, or to translate literally and faithfully while sacrificing many formal aspects of the poem.
As Nabokov wrote,
The ‘arty translation’ protects them by concealing and camouflaging ignorance or incomplete information or the fuzzy edge of limited knowledge. Stark literalism, on the other hand, would expose their fragile frame to unknown and incalculable perils…
It is quite natural, then that the solidly unionized professional paraphrast experiences a surge of dull hatred and fear, and in some cases real panic, when confronted with the possibility that a shirt in fashion, or the influence of an adventurous publishing house, may suddenly remove from his head the cryptic rose-bush he carries or the maculated shield erected between him and the specter of inexorable knowledge. As a result, the canned music of rhymed versions is enthusiastically advertised, and accepted, and the sacrifice of textual precision applauded as something rather heroic, whereas only suspicion and bloodhounds await the gaunt, graceless literalist groping around in despair for the obscure word that would satisfy impassioned fidelity and accumulating in the process a wealth of information which only makes the advocates of pretty camouflage tremble or sneer.
In his famous English translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Nabokov himself made some unique choices in an attempt to accurately portray the intent of the original. Line 8 of Canto XIV in Chapter One reads, in Russian: “bednyazhku tsaptsarap”. The latter word, “tsaptsarap”, is not a real word in Russian; but rather an onomatopoeic combination of “tsapat’ ” (to snatch) and “tsarapat’ ” (to scratch). Nabokov creates the word “scrab,” a combination of grab and scratch, to mimic the portmanteau. Another good example comes in Canto VII of Chapter Four, when “dostoyno starïh obez’yan” is transliterated as “worthy of old sapajous” rather than “old monkeys.” Although the word “obez’yan” directly translates as monkey, Nabokov notes that the line is adapted from a line Pushkin wrote in French two years before (Pushkin was fluent in French), reading “mais cette jouissance est digne d’un vieux sapajou du dix-huitieme siecle”. Sapajou, which incidentally is the French name for capuchin monkeys, has in French colloquial connotations of “ruffian” or “lecher.” Nabokov uses the more obscure word because it more closely fits the intentions of Pushkin (so far as scholarly research can deduct).
Another example, and perhaps one more familiar, can be found in English translations of the Bible. In Genesis, God creates Adam from the dust in the ground. English translations miss the fact that the name Adam is a play off of the Hebrew word for ground (“adamah”). Similarly, the English Bible describes Eve as “the mother of all living.” In the Hebrew, Eve is called Havah, a derivation of the word for life, “hai”.
An individual language is an almost infinitely complex system. A dynamic system at that. Every year, new words are added to English dictionaries to reflect changes in usage (most recently, “ginormous” gained an entry). There are dialects of English that are almost mutually unintelligible, without even getting into syncretic blends (Gullah, for example, spoken in parts of the rural South, is a former slave patois: a mixture of English, Spanish, French, and various African and Caribbean languages). English itself is a bastardization of at least a dozen languages, and the use of adapted English words has become increasingly common in China and Japan. The Japanese word for elevator is “erubeetaa”, the word for tape recorder is “teepu rekoodaa”, even the word for bread is “pan” – taken from Portuguese merchants in the late 16th and early 17th centuries (the Japanese, incidentally, referred to the Portuguese as “nanban”, or “southern barbarians”).
For something that we take for granted, and comes so naturally to us, it is hard to remember how computationally intense it is to process language. Almost our entire brain is involved in processing speech: the hearing centers to parse the sounds, memory centers to attach the sounds to meanings and associations, vision to identify speakers, and higher-level processing regions that make sense of it all within our particular social or cultural context. It is easy to say, and to understand, a phrase like, “I could have been giving you the book” without recognizing the inherent complexity of that sentence. It is easier still to dismiss other language as simply being packages of different sounds to represent the same things, when in fact the differences between languages can be immense, to the point that it actively shapes the way we perceive the world around us (the most basic example are the intrinsic genders shared by many Indo-European languages, e.g. “el” and “la” in Spanish, which affect the way people view the objects with those genders – as being more masculine, or more feminine).
Humans are not the only animals that can communicate. Some animals can communicate in ways that are not perceptually possible for us (ultrasound, ultraviolet light, infrared light, chemical, tactile, olfactory, electric fields). In fact, the intricacy of communication networks is a major criterion in determinations of animal intelligence and consciousness. Still, no animal demonstrates abilities to an extent that we can rightly define as language (to the extent we understand what ‘language’ is, which is another debate entirely). What exactly is the mechanism by which we attach meaning to sounds or marks on pieces of paper, often incredibly complicated or abstract, and what does “meaning” even … mean? There are neural pathologies, caused by stroke or other brain damage, that can literally sever this conceptual link- patients have difficulty accurately attributing the correct meaning to a given word, yet preserve some degree of semantic information. If you ask them to say the word “salt,” they may respond “pepper.” It is still not certain how exactly this type of damage affects processing, and what this means about language as an element of our consciousness.
Recent technological innovation has made huge strides in computer comprehension and production of language. The most famous example is Siri, which many of you may have on your iPhones. Still, Siri, and other natural language processing software, is nowhere near as powerful and complex as real human language. Try discussing this column with Siri, or any philosophical bent of your choosing. The development of a program that could not only parse this writing in such a way as to accurately reconstruct the intended message, but also be able to respond, criticize, augment, or otherwise react to its content in the way that every one reading this is capable, would require processing power and energy consumption to a degree that may or may not even be possible (at least with our current levels of knowledge and technology). So just in the time it takes you to read this and think about it for a few minutes, your brain is performing a complex interconnecting network of tasks that far exceed the abilities of even the world’s most powerful supercomputers. (Well done!).
Just some food for thought. Try not to eat your fingers off.