Lost in translation


Any English speaker living in a foreign country has at some stage or another encountered some fairly dodgy English translations. Every ex-pat I know has a funny tale to tell of notorious translation cock-ups, most commonly found in hotels and restaurants.

One friend of mine loves telling the story of how a sign in a hotel room advised guests that they were "invited to take advantage of the chamber maid." (As I have also seen this on a number of blogs and websites, I often wonder if my mate actually really did see this sign or if he nicked it from somewhere for the sake of an amusing anecdote.)

I myself have a few fond memories of some strange translations I came across in Prague. I remember once being offered "pee soup" in a restaurant, which was actually very nice despite my initial trepidation. My own personal favourite is a notice for guests in a hotel room where one of my relatives stayed on a visit. "If this is your first trip to Prague," the sign read, "you are welcome to it."

I suppose bad English like this is to be expected when businesses are too tight-fisted to hire proper translators instead of college students or former au-pairs who once worked in Britain for six months to do their translations for them. But I have to admit I am often more disconcerted by the increasing acceptance of what I would politely describe as "unconventional" English. It seems that we poor native English speakers are constantly being bombarded by English phrases, which are decidedly odd but regularly used.

If you look at any EU document written in English, you will come across a lot of strange language, which many of my Czech English-speaking friends seem to understand better than I do. I guess this phenomenon is hardly surprising given the fact that some estimates indicate that there are a billion fluent English speakers in the world, only a third of which actually use English as their native tongue. This means that there must be millions of people who are not native speakers talking English to each other on a daily basis. It's little wonder therefore that English seems to be rapidly mutating into something we native speakers may not like but can do little about.

Of course, English speakers themselves are also partly responsible for this situation. It's no secret that the EU, for instance, cannot find enough native English-speaking translators to translate out of difficult languages like Czech. As a result, it's not surprising that they sometimes have to resort to using Czechs for English translations. I guess that as long as most English-speaking people continue to remain resolutely monolingual and rely on most foreigners understanding them rather than taking the trouble to learn foreign languages, the increasing prevalence of peculiar English is not going to go away anytime soon.