Category Archives: Bad Translations


Langenscheidt has started a new collection of incredibly bad translations into German from all over the world. Author Titus Arnus has also been a guest on “Tv Total” in case you want to know more.

Photo: Haimo Pölzl

Why Is the Word “the” So Difficult to Define?

“It’s the most frequent word in the English language, accounting for around four percent of all the words we write or speak. It’s everywhere, all the time, so clearly it must be doing something important. Words have meaning. That’s fundamental, isn’t it? So what does “the,” a word that seems to be supporting a significant portion of the entire weight of our language, mean? It must mean something, right?”

Why Is the Word the So Difficult to Define? – Article by Arika Okrent over at Slate

Official list of English words misused in EU documents

A brief list of misused English terminology in EU publications [PDF Download] is a fascinating look at the emerging dialect of English that is emerging out of the EU bureaucracy, in which odd bureaucratic language has to be translated from and to many languages. It’s a good window into concepts that are common in one nation’s bureaucratic tradition, but not others’:

Dispose (of)
Explanation: the most common meaning of ‘dispose of’ is ‘to get rid of’ or ‘to throw away’; it never means ‘to have’, ‘to possess’ or ‘to have in one’s possession’. Thus, the sentence ‘The managing authority disposes of the data regarding participants.’ does not mean that it has them available; on the contrary, it means that it throws them away or deletes them. Similarly, the sentence below does not mean: ‘the Commission might not have independent sources of information’, it means that the Commission is not permitted to discard the sources that it has.

Example: ‘The Commission may not be able to assess the reliability of the data provided by Member States and may not dispose of independent information sources (see paragraph 39)46.’

As Bruce Sterling says, “I would not expect ‘Brussels English’ to get any closer to grammatically correct British English; on the contrary I would expect it in future to drift into areas of machine translation jargon, since that’s a lot cheaper than hiring human translators who are as skilled as the author of this document.”

-> Web Semantics: Brussels English


Google Translate Turns Obama Into Bush

“Google wonks beavering away at translating snippets of French into the English language might wish to take note of the following fact – their system thinks “le président américain” is “Bush”.

That’s George W Bush, we suppose.

The Register reports that “Reg reader Robert spotted the amusing cockup when he tried to translate an article from daily French newspaper Le Monde.

Our man popped the following sentence into Google translate and waited for the Googbots to work their magic.

Only to get this surprising translation:

As we all know, old W was cut loose from the White House in January 2009 after two terms, and was soon replaced by one Barack Obama – a man currently seeking another four years in the Oval Office – after Republican candidate John McCain lost the November 2008 race.

But Google Translate DOESN’T KNOW.

Senk ju vor Träwelling – Deutsche Bahn and the English language

Well it is that time of the year again and people all over Europe trying to get home. Given the weather conditions and airport closures and despite delays and over-crowded trains, rail seems like a good option to many, not only for travel within Germany but also internationally. And how are Deutsche Bahn dealing with this increase in international customers? By getting rid of their English language announcements, it would appear.

Now I know, this announcement was made a few weeks before this latest bout of extreme weather. But this is not the first time this year when extreme conditions have grounded flights across Europe and forced people to the rails; the erruption of Eyjafjalljökull and the ash cloud that followed introduced a lot new customers to the pleasures of Deutsche Bahn. One would think that Deutsche Bahn would be interested in retaining these customers by making rail travel more accessible for non-German speakers. Removing English language announcements and putting nothing in their place is not perhaps the ideal strategy in this regard.

Not that I was ever the number one cheerleader for these announcements. They were overly long, the information they gave was very formulaic and they certainly did not assist staff in clarifying difficult situations to international customers. I witnessed this for myself last February while en route from Vienna to Berlin. The snow had been persistently falling for weeks and it was perhaps not surprising that the train was delayed somewhere. In my case, I faced an hour delay somewhere between Bavaria and Saxony. Announcements in German were made early, often and at considerable length. Announcements in English were limited to the standard “Senk ju vor Träwelling” announcement upon our delayed arrival at the next station. Which would have been fine, had all the customers understood German but I did hear a number of confused non-German speakers asking other passengers what was being said in the announcements. That is not what I call good customer service.

There were plenty of ways Deutsche Bahn could resolve this problem, from the low tech option of equipping conductors with custom-designed phrasebooks so that they could make appropriate announcements to more high tech solutions involving SMS services. These are all the kind of innovative language solutions that Translabor loves to be a part of.

If you are one of those attempting to travel across this snowy continent, Translabor wishes you a very safe journey!

La Toya Jackson and the interpreter from Saxony

The worst interpreter for English/German ever.

How Hollywood represents foreign speech

Slate: “Since the beginning of Hollywood, filmmakers after an exotic or romantic effect have taken their stories abroad. Since the advent of sound in the late 1920s, this tendency has created a little-discussed problem: How to represent foreign speech? Many filmmakers are content to shoot against a painted backdrop, toss in a few bonjours, and call it France, while others go to great lengths to have characters look and speak as authentically as possible. There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s a tricky business—directors must balance the expectations of realism with ease of viewing. They want dialogue to be convincing, but they don’t want to alienate their audiences with accents or subtitles that aren’t essential to the story.
We tend to take language for granted; how foreign speech is handled in film shapes our experience as viewers, usually without our knowing it. The accompanying slide show explores the various ways that filmmakers negotiate foreign speech, highlighting those films that approach the problem as an opportunity to deepen the story.

Click here for a video slide show on foreign speech in Hollywood movies.”

Against the Lawn

Engrish – I can has translation

There are so many funny examples of awful translations and has been collecting the best ones since 1999.

Google Translate takes on the Cupcake challenge

Came across this lovely example of google translate’s fine work via and today. found some nice New York themed promotional material for the new line of cupcakes McDonald’s Germany is currently offering and simply stuck the text through google translate. Hilarity ensued. This is one of the more cogent examples:

German Original:

Central Park

Geheimtipp und Central Park? Ganz New York hängt hier rum. Mein Tipp: Holt euch einfach einen Erdbeer Cup-Cake, setzt euch auf irgendeine Bank und genießt eurem ganz persönlichen Central Park Moment.

Google Translate version via

“Tip and central park? Throughout New York hangs out here. My tip: Just get yourself a cup strawberry-cake, sit down at any bank and enjoy your very personal Central Park Moment.”

Google Translate version as of this afternoon

Kept secret and Central Park? Throughout New York hangs out here. My tip: Get a simple Holt Strawberry Cup Cake, sit on any bench and enjoy your very own Central Park moment.

Translabor says:

The original google translate version sounded odd and mistranslated some important terms. For example ‘Ganz New York’ should clearly be ‘All New York’ or ‘Everyone in New York’, an Erdbeer Cup-Cake is clearly a strawberry cupcake not a cup strawberry-cake, and while the word bank may appear to make sense here(the bank of a lake or river for example) this is not the intended meaning – the ‘Bank’ that you sit on in German is a bench in English, the ‘Bank’ where you keep your money is indeed bank in English, but the English ‘bank’ of the river is a German ‘Ufer’. So far, so muddled.

The newer google translation seems to have corrected a few mistakes, but created a few ones in the process. This time they have got the translation of ‘Bank’ right, but for some reason the program no longer recognises ‘Holt’ as the German imperative form of ‘holen'(get), instead mistaking it for a proper noun and including it in the English version. The translation of ‘geheimtipp’ is also tweaked here  – to ‘kept secret’ – not much better than ‘tip’ in the original. A much better solution overall would be something non-literal like ‘Want a New York insider tip? Try Central Park’ or ‘Hang like the New Yorkers – In Central Park’. But given that google translate is still struggling with simple literal translations like ‘Bank’ this is not something I would expect.

So, while google translate is improving all the time, and is not bad if you want a very broad idea of what is being said in a language you do not at all understand – I would not expect it to replace human translations any time soon. Most of the sentences I translate are considerably more complex and nuanced than those listed above, and non-literal translation is very often required if you want a text to ‘sing’ rather than plod along. I could be wrong here, but barring the creation of translation programs backed by the kind of artificial intelligence that would allow the machine to genuinely think like a human, those of us who write and interpret for a living are safe.

%d bloggers like this: