One afternoon late last year, I went out for lunch at a restaurant not far from the south Thailand guesthouse where I’d been staying. My landlady ran the place, and on this day she seemed particularly pleased to see me. “We have new English menu!” she exclaimed, presenting me with a glossy list of entrees.
I took a seat and scanned the menu, which listed the kinds of dishes I’d always eaten there—red curry, paad thai, tom yam. Then, amidst the standard delicacies, I noticed a dish I’d never before sampled in this part of the world: FRIED RICE WITH CRAP.
Concerned, I took the menu over to my landlady. “I think this dish is a mistake,” I told her.
“Oh, no!” she replied brightly. “We make seafood for you! Fresh from water!”
I gave my landlady a skeptical look. “But surely ‘crap’ is not what you meant to write.”
“Yes, crap! Very delicious!”
I considered this. “Do you by chance mean ‘carp’?”
“No!” she laughed. “Crap!” She splayed her hands and mimicked the scuttling movement of a crustacean.
“Oh, you mean crab. C-R-A-B. Not C-R-A-P.”
“Yes!” she said, handing the menu back to me. “Crab. Both sound same to me.” Then, almost as an afterthought, she asked: “What means ‘crap’?”
This was not the first time I’d chanced into such an awkwardly comical situation in Thailand. At the central market in Ranong, one could buy packets of “COCK CONDITIONING PILLS” (which I very much hope are for roosters), and the local supermarket did fast trade in a brand of toilet paper called “Sit and Smile.” Perhaps most notably, however, a toy vendor along the main street sold packs of tiny plastic animals that came with a sober warning for parents: “BE CAREFUL OF BEING EATEN BY SMALL CHILDREN.”
To be sure, Thailand holds no monopoly on poorly translated English. Some years ago, a series of forwarded e-mails made the rounds, describing bizarre signs posted in Kenyan restaurants (“Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager”), Norwegian cocktail lounges (“Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar”), and Russian monasteries (“You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday”). A similar round of emails celebrated the linguistic gaffes that resulted when American corporations introduced new slogans into foreign markets. In Mexico, for example, “Got Milk?” translated into the decidedly un-hip slogan, “Are You Lactating?”
No doubt this tradition of global mistranslation goes back to the days when Greek and Roman tourists frequented the sights of Anatolia and Egypt (one can imagine shaky Latin letters scrawled onto papyrus outside an Alexandria dry-cleaner: “Let us put happiness in your toga!”), but the modern practice of publicly butchering English can be traced back to the American occupation of post-war Japan in the 1940s and ‘50s. There, amidst the sudden rush to emulate all things Western, G.I.‘s were able to buy tubes of “Snot” brand toothpaste, and the Japanese brass band that played at General MacArthur’s election reputedly commissioned a banner that read: “We pray for General MacArthur’s erection.” To this day, Japan still leads the world in mistranslated English (see Engrish.com for a splendid collection).
Other societies are rapidly catching up to the Japanese example, however, mainly in proportion to how fast they modernize. Korea, where I lived for two years as an English teacher in the late ‘90s (“Praise the Load!” read posters for my school’s Bible club), boasts a fine tradition of mangling the English language. Indeed, as both a Koreaphile and a former EFL educator, I didn’t know whether to be inspired or horrified in 2002, when the red-clad South Korean World Cup team stormed into the semifinals, and (according to news reports) 5 million soccer-crazed Koreans went out and bought T-shirts that exulted: “BE THE REDS!”
If there is a growth market in dodgy English, however, look no further than China, where one billion increasingly globalized citizens will soon start translating area signage into English in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. Brian Baker, a fellow Kansas émigré who spent a year teaching English in China, once found the following tourist information posted in a Wuhan statue park:
1. The tourists must care for the statues, consciously avoid carving, writing, climbing, and damnification. Trying to be a civilized citizen.
2. The tourists climbing the statues must be fined from 5-50 yuan.
3. The tourists carving or scratching the statues must be fined from 50-500 yuan.
4. The tourists making a breakage for the statues’ instruments must be fined 1000-5000 yuan.
5. The tourists making a breakage for the second half of the statue must be fined 2000-8000 yuan.
6. The tourists making a breakage for the first half of the statue (without the face) must be charged 3000-10000 yuan.
One can imagine tourists sizing up such vandalism options with the kind of anticipation usually reserved for fine wine lists (“Ooh look, honey, let’s make a breakage for the statues’ instruments—it’s totally within our price range!”).
Brian’s most vivid experience with Chinese English, however, came in a provincial grocery store. “There,” he reports, “between the Natural Powdered Jellyfish and the Yak Ham, I saw what looked, to my hungry eyes, to be a package of sliced turkey. Imagine my surprise when, upon closer inspection, the label clearly read: ‘CHOICE AROMATIC LION BUTT.’ I still can’t imagine what Chinese-English dictionary yielded that monstrosity of translation.”
The potential flip side to all this, of course, lies in the recent Western vogue for Chinese characters on clothing and skin art. As a case in point, I once bought a T-shirt that, according to the vendor, featured the Chinese symbol for “Lucky.” It wasn’t until months later that a Hong Kong friend informed me that it wasn’t even close to “Lucky”—that it really meant “Super.” Had it read “Dork,” or “Kick Me,” I would have been none the wiser. Similarly, all the hipsters who went out and got Chinese ideogram tattoos over the past decade could be in for a nasty surprise if they ever travel to China. After all, a “Crouching Tiger” buttock tattoo purchased in good faith in Seattle might eventually be revealed as provincial slang for “Impotent,” and a Melbourne tattoo artist who designs stylized “Freedom” ideograms might accidentally miss a stroke and send his clients off with a symbol that means, say, “Adult Diapers.”
Beneath the dangers of dabbling in other languages, of course, lies an optimistic truth: that, regardless of syntactic differences, the basic human meanings behind our languages remain the same. After all, “Sit and Smile” is indeed a desirable activity after having used toilet paper, and even the most diabolical of restauranteurs wouldn’t literally serve you fried rice with crap.
To be on the safe side, however, I think I’ll stick to the red curry and tom yam
Originally published by World Hum, Dec. 3 2004