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.”


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.

Using dictionaries correctly – or how to avoid bad DIY translations

I’ve already written here about bad DIY translations and I came across another one today. Here is how these amateur translators could have spotted their embarrassing mistakes.

1. Case 1 – Black Lenses

In this case the person in question was trying to translate the German word ‘linse’. Consulting you will find that there are a number of English possibilities including lens, lense, lentil, nugget and refractor. Each of these terms are followed by an abbreviation  – lens is followed by the abbreviations [anat.] [phot.] [phys.], lentil is followed by the abbreviations [bot.], etc.

What do these abbreviations mean. LEO has compiled a helpful list which explains it all. If you consult it you will see that anat. means anatomy or in German ‘Anatomie’, phot. means photography or ‘Fotografie’ and phys. means physics or ‘Physik’. Thus the word lens is the correct translation of ‘linse’ if you are using the word to describe something anatomical, photographic or in the field of physics. Consulting the same list for bot., the abbreviation that appeared after lentil, you will find that bot refers to botany or ‘Botanik’, a plant. Given that the ‘linsen’ in this bad translation were of the cooking variety, this alone should have confirmed that lentil was the correct translation. However the DIY translators here could have double checked using an English-English dictionary. The standard dictionary for British English is the Oxford English Dictionary, and although the complete version is a subscriber only service there is a concise version available here which is perfectly adequate for most purposes. For American English the standard dictionary is Merriam-Webster’s which is available online here free of charge. Either one would have confirmed that a lens is something used in photography and a lentil is a plant you can cook with. Which would have meant that black lentils is the correct translation of ‘Schwarze Linsen’ in this context.

2. Case 2 – ‘Danke für Ihr Verständnis’

Well, one of the privileges of being self-employed is that you can choose your hours so today I chose to avoid the Saturday rush and go shopping for a new jacket in the Alexa Mall in Berlin. While I was walking through an automated announcement was played which advised visitors that smoking was not permitted inside the mall. The German version ended with the standard German ‘Danke für Ihr Verständnis’, which literally translates as ‘Thank you for your understanding’. That sounds bad enough, but the Alexa English version was even worse – ‘Thank you for your comprehension’. What went wrong here?

Well obviously it was a DIY translation, but the first thing the DIY translator apparently did not understand is these kind of functional statements can rarely be directly translated. The non-literal English equivalents would be something like ‘we apologise for any inconvenience this may cause’ or ‘we appreciate your patience’. In my opinion a simple ‘thank you’ would have been the most appropriate solution here. But even ‘thank you for your understanding’ would have been better than nothing.

How did they mix up comprehension and understanding? Easy! Type in ‘verständnis’ into and you will see that both understanding and comprehension turn up as possible options. There are no useful abbreviations here to help us but if they had clicked on comprehension to see what other German meanings this might have they would have seen that there are about 13 other German words that fit the bill including ‘begreifen’ which can translate as to grasp mentally. If they had then checked one of the English-English dictionaries they would have seen that the primary definition of comprehension is ‘the act or action of grasping with the intellect‘. Clicking on Understanding you will find a ‘sympathetic awareness or tolerance‘ as one possible meaning. This is what they meant here by ‘verständis’ and comprehension has no similar meaning, so this word should have been ruled out straight away.

Of course if the DIY translator’s English is too limited to manage this whole process then they should probably hire a professional, something that we at Translabor would recommend anyway!

When Subtitles Go Wrong

Funny stuff from The Huffington Post: “Subtitles can guide you through a foreign film. They can also go horribly awry. The latter often happens when an English film is dubbed in another language and then re-subtitled. We don’t know who’s transcribing them, but we’re thankful they don’t have a grasp on the English language.”

Black lenses and other translation mishaps

One Friday evening I found myself at the Bio Edeka organic supermarket near my home. I was looking for black beans for a sweet potato salad recipe I had found on the New York Times’ website, but alas were there none so I settled for some easy-to-cook black beluga lentils or ‘Schwarze Linsen’ from the ‘Gut und Gerne’ brand. Have a close look and see if you see what’s not quite right with this picture…..

Given up yet? Click on the image, inspect it a little more closely and you will discover that the company have translated ‘Schwarze Linsen’ as Black Lenses. That this is an incorrect use of language should be apparent to anyone whose command of the English language extends beyond the pre-intermediate level. So how did the get this so wrong?

My guess is that they simply got one of secretaries, or interns or whoever to look up a dictionary for the English word for ‘Linse’. My favorite online dictionary LEO suggests at least four conceptually separate English words for ‘Linse’, Lens, Nugget, Refractor and our winner for today, Lentil.

One can look at this humerously – from an English speaker’s perspective, our German friends eat black lenses and wear contact lentils. I’m sure it’s not from the company’s perspective though. Why would you go to the trouble of including an English translation of your product name if you did not think that it would be of some benefit to you. It would have been a hell of a lot more beneficial if they had bothered to hire a translator. Or at the very least the could have schooled themselves in the correct use of bilingual dictionaries! I’ll get back to the dictionary question sometime soon. In the mean time, if anyone finds any more example of simply woeful translations out there in the wilds of Germany, drop us a note in the comments!