From the annals of unfortunate translation experiences, this gem:

No entry for heavy
goods vehicles.
Residential site only.
Nid wyf yn y swyddfa
ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch
unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu.
In the words of the caption, “The English is clear enough to lorry drivers – but the Welsh reads ‘I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.'” Read the linked BBC story for details of how it happened and similarly hair-raising examples (“In the same year, a sign for pedestrians in Cardiff reading ‘Look Right’ in English read ‘Look Left’ in Welsh”). Thanks, Eric!


  1. John Emerson says

    Babelfish isn’t perfect, OK?

  2. John Emerson says

    Babelfish isn’t perfect, OK?

  3. Almost too bad that John Wells is on holiday. He’s dissected a couple of those examples of … well, at best “Wenglish”.

  4. This is why I never got a T-shirt with Japanese writing. In case it didn’t exactly say what they thought it said.

  5. John Emerson says

    There’s a joke about a women who knitted some Chinese characters from a menu into a sweater: “This dish is cheap but tasty”.

  6. John Emerson says

    There’s a joke about a women who knitted some Chinese characters from a menu into a sweater: “This dish is cheap but tasty”.

  7. Brilliant. Reminiscent of (and much funnier than) the story behind the title of the Electric Light Orchestra’s first album, No Answer.

  8. @ Sili — these aren’t Wenglish — they’re Scymraeg!

  9. That’s always the problem with with texts that one can buy in exotic places. A few years ago I bought a little plaque in Istanbul that looks nice, but I’ve no idea what it says. It looks as if it’s in Arabic, but for all I know it may be Turkish as it was written before Atatürk introduced the Roman alphabet. I have a lingering worry that someone who can read it will tell me that it says “Long life Osama ben Laden” and I’ll get whisked in for questioning. However, my guess is that it says “There is no other god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”.

  10. A.J.P. Crown says

    Look, i don’t want to say anything too political and off-topic, and in fact there is a tangential language side to this question, but how come some people are intelligent enough to assemble the flat packets of IKEA storage units from the wordless diagrams but will still vote for McCain and Palin? Is it true to say that every American who shops at IKEA is either an Obama supporter or very rich? Or is it just a different kind of intelligence? I don’t mean this to sound snotty.

  11. ACB-
    If it’s from the Koran it’s most definitely in Arabic, that’s the language Allah speaks. Everything else is a “translation”. The phrase you are talking about is the “shahada” or declaration of faith; saying it is what makes you a Moslem. This is what is looks like. If that’s not it and you can post a picture, I can see if I can get it identified.

  12. intelligence, IKEA, and the 2008 election:
    First of all, Kron, I’m not sure if you’re trying to associate shopping at IKEA with being upscale or downscale. Downscale would be Walmart; upscale people do not assemble their own furniture. That’s why they have “people”. Joe the Plumber might shop at IKEA, on the other hand he might shop at WalMart.
    Secondly, I do shop at IKEA, but only on rare occasions. Even though I live in a large metropolitan area, the nearest one is 2 hours away. I do not find the assembly pictures confusing; however in another incarnation I was a techie type person and did everything without consulting the manual. Reading the manual is for wimps. Most people could write a better manual themselves. For me the biggest IKEA challenge is muscling the stuff into the back seat.
    As far as U.S. politics, intelligence has little to do with that either. A very simplistic description is that traditionally the divide has been between the haves (Republican) and the have-nots (Democrat), but this election cycle some traditionally Democratic groups, like women (P.U.M.A.) and blue collar (Joe the Plumber), are starting to splinter off.
    If you really want to know more about the people who can assemble IKEA items and still intend to vote McCain/Palin, try Riverdaughter over at The Confluence. Riverdaughter is a chemist and a Clinton Democrat. I believe she could assemble anything at IKEA without reading the directions. Some of her other writers are in banking and law. They are not conservatives but they are all Nobama. They all have serious reservations about McCain/Palin, so perhaps the split in the Democratic party is only temporary.
    They are nice people, but political discussions can be exhausting. I really prefer it over here.

  13. Hey, at least the original didn’t mispell “swyddfa”, or leave out “Anfonwch”.

  14. Oops! Sorry, I’m off to fix it.

  15. Speaking of Palin and things lost intranslation, I enjoyed this very “free” translation, an excerpt from a transcript of her run-in with the comedy team known as the Masked Avengers, one of whom was pretending to be Nicolas Sarkozy:
    A:You know my wife … even wrote a song for you.
    P: Oh my goodness, I didn’t know that.
    A: Yes, in French it’s called de rouge a levre sur un cochon, or if you prefer in English, Joe the Plumber…it’s his life, Joe the Plumber.
    P: Maybe she understands some of the unfair criticism but I bet you she is such a hard worker

    The most bizarre instance of bureaucratic translation I can recount is when a friend of mine from Pune was told he would have to get his Indian driver’s licence translated into English before he could exchange it for an NZ licence. Despite his angry and bewildered protestations, he did end up having to pay the NZ government’s official translation service around $400NZ to translate his licence from English into English.

  16. Okay, now I want a job as an English-English translator for the New Zealand government.

  17. John Emerson says

    Indian official documents have a very thick, almost unintelligible accent. Sort of like Jamaican Rastafarian documents.

  18. John Emerson says

    Indian official documents have a very thick, almost unintelligible accent. Sort of like Jamaican Rastafarian documents.

  19. A.J.P. Crown says

    I’m not sure if you’re trying to associate shopping at IKEA with being upscale or downscale.
    No, I’m not. Everyone gets stuff at IKEA, that’s my point. I spent the other day assembling storage units for our entry hall and I only managed to understand the instructions by paying complete attention. You have to observe, for instance, which way round 2 tiny dots are on a rectangle, and it reminds me of the questions you find on IQ tests — or a better analogy would be the tests they give to rats, because if you get it wrong you have an enormous penalty to pay: three hours of unscrewing things, or returning to the shop and getting a new part. So I was thinking, if Mr & Mrs Average can do this, why can’t they understand the election issues? But it’s really not a question about the politics, it’s about communication or language, or something.

  20. SnowLeopard says

    @ A.J.P. Crown: Although the issues in a campaign probably have some weight, research indicates that people tend to join political parties or other groups not because of their ideology but because of feelings of personal comfort and compatibility with other members of those groups. For many, ideology seems to reconcile itself to the party line (more or less) once that alliance has been made. In my own case, although I agree with one candidate on about 80% of the issues and the other on 20%, I find that the perceived tone and style of Mr. 20%’s campaign (and the behavior of his supporters) are my most compelling reason to vote for the other guy. I’m not sure that reflects on my ability or inability to assemble an IKEA package. I imagine I would get overly frustrated with instructions I thought were vague, incomplete, and contradictory, and then my wife would step in to assemble the item perfectly by ignoring the instructions and just poking through the box for a few minutes.

  21. A.J.P. Crown says

    Thanks, that’s interesting. I really advise against assembling without reading the instructions. It’s not a moral thing, but you will quickly regret it.

  22. A.J.P. Crown says

    There’s a very nice picture, called a Kron, or crone, here.

  23. Nijma: This is what is looks like.
    Yes, that’s exactly what it looks like. Do you own a shop in Istanbul and remember my buying it from you?

  24. A.J.P. Crown says

    Eric and MMcM, by the way, were way ahead of the British papers (well, The Guardian, anyway) who only got hold of this story one day later.

  25. I really advise against assembling without reading the instructions.
    If you do look at the instructions, don’t let anyone know, or you will ruin your street cred.
    More seriously, though, it’s a good idea to take all the parts out and look at them and have in your mind’s eye how they will go together. Too often a vital drawing is left out which will be readily apparent when you just look at the stuff. Or they will change some fastener or substitute some vital part, but they already have umpteen million instruction sheets printed so they don’t go to the expense of updating them.
    Sometimes you can improve on the design too. My last IKEA project had predrilled holes so you could put the drawer pulls on the left side or the right side. Now why on God’s green earth would you not want them in the center?
    My brother ran across this problem when he was installing some upgrade on his airplane. When I popped in on him one day he was patching a hole in what looked like the engine because the upgrade wouldn’t fit where they had promised. Of course he eventually figured out how to install it, and no doubt put it up on his blog, where people who pay the subscription fee can get a password to read all about it.

  26. A.J.P. Crown says

    I’d never buy one of their airplanes, they’re made of Swedish meatballs..

  27. I don’t think the airplane came from IKEA. The documentation problem you are describing is much bigger than just one company. It is inate to the engineering world.

  28. My brother has a great frikadeller recipe, which I believe is also password protected.

  29. ACB: Do you own a shop in Istanbul…
    That was easy.
    Jordanians always have what they call a “sura Koran” (sura=picture) above the entry door so they can see it as they go out. They seem to have a thing about graven images, so Koran calligraphy has become highly developed. I am still looking for a good sura Koran for my own door. I’m looking both for something aesthetically pleasing and spiritually inspiring. As a Christian who also takes spiritual vitamins from other traditions, I want something a little more global that doesn’t mention Mohammad the Rasool. The corsi Aya (2:255) seems about right for that and is also used in various bedouin spells for going to sleep and/or getting a customer to return to your shop.
    I have never been to Istanbul, but it appears that Mr. Emerson’s Dravidian excursion has fallen through. Perhaps it’s time to organize a new adventure–investigating Koranic inscriptions?

  30. A.J.P. Crown says

    IKEA in Norway sells mezuzahs.

  31. John Emerson says

    I have two favorite Koranic (or Hadith) quotations: “The ink of scholars is more precious than the blood of the martyrs” and “Seek wisdom, even as far as China”.

  32. John Emerson says

    I have two favorite Koranic (or Hadith) quotations: “The ink of scholars is more precious than the blood of the martyrs” and “Seek wisdom, even as far as China”.

  33. Unfortunately, it would appear that both these ahadith are weak ones. A variation of the first one – “The life of the Ummah is connected to the ink of the scholars and the blood of the martyrs” – is attributed to Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. As for the second one, Victor Mair had a go at it over at old LL some time ago.

  34. Excellent quotations!
    Where can I get the original Arabic?

  35. Speaking of pseudoquotes from holy scriptures, I remember one from the Bible popular with the teachers back in my high school days: “And when the Lord saw the wages of the servants in this house, he turned away and wept.” I’ve seen it attributed to Leviticus 4:5, Numbers and all of the gospels. Of course, there is no such passage in the Bible. The closest it gets is “Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” which appears in both Leviticus (19:13) and Deuteronomy (24:15).

  36. John Emerson got me going and I dug up the Arabic for both sayings, along with some background.
    I see others find it as interesting as I do, so now I have even more links to follow.

  37. Unfortunately China seems to block wordpress.

  38. Christophe Strobbe says

    John Emerson wrote: “Seek wisdom, even as far as China”.
    And enjoy the stir-fried Wikipedia with pimientos at the Translate server error restaurant.

  39. Bathrobe: Unfortunately China seems to block wordpress.
    Here is a site that discusses Tor, proxies and other workarounds for Turkey’s WordPress ban (it’s the personal blog of Matt, the WordPress Head Dude).
    If you’re a guest in the country that might not be what you need though, so give me a little time, I have an idea….

  40. Thanks, Nijma.
    I believe WordPress was blocked right through the Olympics, which makes a mockery of Chinese claims to have given free access to the Internet (except, of course, for seditious sites used by religious sects and separatist movements, which they adamantly refused to block). Everyone was so impressed by the well-orchestrated and well-executed games, the charm offensive and hospitality put on by the Chinese (sincere as it was), and the gloss that money can put on things, that they decide to overlook “little infringements” like this. The Chinese government seems to have a knack of getting other people to make excuses for them.

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