What the f#$% is with all the foul language?


When language translation software was first being developed, it seemed as if people who spoke different languages might finally be able to communicate easily with one another– in writing anyway. Just type in your native-language text, select the translation language, and hit “Translate.” Easy, right? Well, I can tell you that if it were that easy, I would have gotten a lot better than a C on my senior-year Spanish paper.

Language translation software is notoriously unreliable, as each language has its own quirks, ambiguities, and nuances that are often “lost in translation.” In Chinese, one character– seen in the photos, it looks a bit like a telephone pole– has a multitude of different meanings, and that has led to some rather egregious translation errors. One recent article explains how the mistranslations are happening: “[S]everal Chinese characters pronounced GAN1 or GAN4 — and meaning such widely disparate things as “dry,” “calendrical sign,” “to do,” and much else beside — all got collapsed into one simplified character.” It goes on to say that since the word “do” is occasionally a replacement for “fuck” (as in, someone “did” someone else) that’s probably where the misunderstanding came from.


My favorite photo, seen at right, is a bit of perceptive commentary on our consumer-driven culture, where one’s belongings necessarily define their place in society. That, or the translating software f#$%ed up again.

The best thing, of course, is to always have a native speaker read translations before they are used in public. Since that’s seldom possible, we can all just sit back and see what the software spits out next.

For a whole f%$#ing menu of mistranslations, go here.

Posted by | Comments Off on What the f#$% is with all the foul language?  | December 28, 2007
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

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