Continuing our focus on the lighter side of language, we bring you Mark Liberman’s report on the “Top 10 translation fails of 2008″; the most entertaining to me is a more general fail, the frequent use of “bowels” as a translation of Russian недра [nedra], ‘depths (of the earth),’ obviously via a dictionary translation “bowels of the earth.” For example, “The Summary of the Energy Strategy of Russia for the Period of Up to 2020” (a 2003 document, online as a pdf here) has a section “Bowels’ Use and Management of the State Bowels’ Fund,” which includes sentences like “The main task of the public energy policy in this sphere is the reproduction of the mineral-raw base of hydrocarbon and other fuel-energy resources and rational use of Russian bowels for providing the stable economic development of the country.” I can’t resist reproducing Mark’s final zinger: “I note that this offers a new linguistic perspective on the recent Russian gas crisis.”


  1. Hmm. That seems close enough to “nether”.

  2. It does sound like it, doesn’t it? Pure coincidence, though; nether is related to Sanskrit nitarām (and Russian niz-), whereas the etymology of nedra is unknown.

  3. our equivalent of the word is khevlii, which means womb, it’s used in all official legislative or geological papers
    gazrun(earth’s) khevlii(womb) which is translated into Russian like nedra, underground resources or how it is called officially in English

  4. You might like this French take on English as the Lingua Franca.

  5. the term does not sound awkward b/c it’s a very officially sounding word, the more anatomically sounding word is different, umai

  6. marie-lucie says

    The French equivalent of “the depths/womb of the earth” would be les entrailles de la terre, a rather old-fashioned expression which I doubt would be found in a document such as the Russian one. The word entrailles (always in the plural) refers originally to “insides, contents of the belly”, eg in the context of removing them from an animal before butchering, or more euphemistically in the expression douleurs d’entrailles “belly pains”, referring to bowel trouble but without dwelling on the specifics. Also less specific is its use in the Hail Mary prayer that refers to Jesus as le fruit de vos entrailles “the fruit of your womb”. I learned the prayer as a child and had no idea of what these words meant.

  7. They’re everywhere!

    The first mouthful of duck had barely passed my lips, said Tetty, when Larry leaped in my wom.
    Your what? said Mr Hackett.
    My wom, said Tetty.
    You know, said Goff, her woom.
    How embarrassing for you, said Mr Hackett.
    I continued to eat, drink and make light conversation, said Tetty, and Larry to leap, like a salmon.

    Considerations, in French, on translating Beckett, with good examples in French and Italian.

    Pas plus tôt avalée ma première fourcheée de navet, dit Tetty, que Larry fit un bond dans ma trice.
    Votre quoi? dit Monsieur Hackett.
    Vous savez, dit Goff, sa trice.

  8. fourchetée, that is

  9. marie-lucie says

    ma première fourcheée de navet
    I think you mean fourchetée, the amount on a fork, a forkful rather than a mouthful.
    Why is duck translated as navet ‘turnip’? there is a recipe for canard aux navets “duck with turnips” but a cat would be more attracted by the smell of duck than by that of turnips.

  10. Oh my golly, I see now that the French is by Beckett himself!
    marie-lucie, please see page 4 in the link for more details on fourchetée de navet. Also, what cat??

  11. How does this relate to Bakhtin’s “material bodily lower stratum”?* Are any of the words the smae?
    *Either that’s the worst translation ever, or Bakhtin was capable of writing horribly badly.

  12. Emmerszoon, that’s the third time you’ve asked about that quote.

  13. Here, scroll down.

  14. Going back briefly to 2007: the same optico-syntactical clump construction самый материально-телесный субстрат is everywhere in German. It’s not really a big deal, though, in cases like this: just discard the hyphens. They’re merely there to make things sound more complicated and profound (my view).
    This material, carnal substrate

  15. marie-lucie says

    Also, what cat??
    Grumbly, I am embarrassed, I should have looked at the link before, as I see now that I totally misunderstood the situation!! I thought that Larry must be a cat which jumped on the woman’s lap as she was eating, I did not realize he was a baby about to be born. Why else was that other character puzzled as she said “wom”? the b is never pronounced, the word does sound like “woom”. That will teach me not to look at all the links people provide! I understand now why Beckett uses “navet” rather than “canard”, since it has been made clear earlier that the characters were eating duck, but only French people would eat it with turnips.

  16. …a cat which jumped on the woman’s lap…
    Ah oui, cherchez la chatte.
    That will teach me not to look at all the links people provide!
    It’s an interesting expression, isn’t it? Why do we say “That will teach X to φ”, when X needed to be taught not to φ? The question comes up when we see a negative form, like this from Marie-Lucie.

  17. Turnips are a French specialty? I never would have guessed.
    On French dietary habits, I enjoy Rabelais when he talks about food, but he seems to be much more the gourmand than the gourmet. Ham and bacon and tripe and sausages and stews, all in large quantities.

  18. Why do we say “That will teach X to φ”, when X needed to be
    taught not to φ?

    Similarly, “let that be a lesson to you”. I suppose it’s because nobody likes to be told what to do and think, or the opposite. Possibly resentment is the only ability that needn’t be inculcated. Rousseau must be turning in
    his grave. Il fut une pirouette et disparut dans l’entrechatte. (Balzac)

  19. marie-lucie says

    Turnips are a French specialty? I never would have guessed.
    The turnips here are the accompaniment for duck, in a traditional recipe called canard aux navets (I have never tried it, it does not sound terribly appetizing). Usually turnips are not used on their own but cooked together with other root vegetables, especially carrots, in a stew or pot-au-feu (pot roast). The turnips in question are the small white and pink turnips, not the huge ochre-coloured rutabagas called turnips in North America. They also have a much milder, rather nondescript taste, so they go well with the stronger-flavoured carrots. That must also be the reason for cooking them with duck.

  20. marie-lucie says

    That will teach …
    Sarcasm often takes a negative (or, in this case, reverse) form, like saying to a child misbehaving: Go ahead! do it again!.

  21. Sarcasm often takes a negative (or, in this case, reverse) form
    One of the most effective internet flamewar argumentation techniques is reducio ad absurdum–carrying a premise through to it’s most illogical conclusion. It can be very snarky and seems to work quite well for winning an argument, but at the expense polarizing the participants and ending discussion.

  22. A.J.P. Crown says

    the huge ochre-coloured rutabagas called turnips in North America.
    I think these are Swedes.

  23. It’s called facetiousness. It can be a tremendous amount of fun, if one is partaking along with the others. It is, in a thread entitled “Russian bowels”, not inappropriate, I daresay. There are no arguments here, nothing to win, nothing to lose.

  24. Thud! Woom! Flying turnips, duck!

  25. A.J.P. Crown says

    carrying a premise through to it’s most illogical conclusion
    Not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but shouldn’t that be ‘logical’, Nij?

  26. Now, in unsolicited defense of Nijma, I must myself wield the CPC (club of political correctness). In the context of what she’s saying, “illogical conclusion” makes perfect sense.

  27. Yeah right, I don’t understand sarcasm (around here)!
    But consider these two non-sarcastic utterances, after a speeding ticket has been issued:

    A: That will make me slow down.

    B: That will teach me not to speed.

    Canonic sarcastic versions are surely these:

    As: That won’t make me slow down!

    Bs: That will teach me to speed!

    Because of the form of Marie-Lucie’s remark, I was prompted to wonder why a simple negation gives sarcasm in As, but what Marie-Lucie calls a “reversal” is needed in Bs. Why not:

    As’: (?)That will make me not slow down.

    Bs’: *That won’t teach me not to speed.

    Or has my ear (or brain) for these things grown faulty under the strain of editing dull prose? Help!

  28. A.J.P. Crown says

    Sorry, Nij. As they say, it’s my brain.
    That’ll teach me to chastise someone (without reading properly).
    Rather than sarcasm, isnt it (implicitly):
    That will teach me to speed (without thinking of the consequences)?

  29. marie-lucie says

    It seems to me that “That will teach me/you to do …” means “This uncomfortable consequence has been a lesson, so I/you will now avoid doing …”, but the two-part thought is collapsed into one with a sarcastic flavour: “I/you have now learned to do …”, actually meaning “learned to avoid doing …”. The thing to be avoided can be a sin of commission or omission.

  30. AJP: carrying a premise through to it’s most illogical conclusion …Not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but shouldn’t that be ‘logical’
    It’s both really. What you do is take your opponent’s point of view and conclude something really stupid from it. It has to be a conclusion that both of you think is illogical. So if the conclusion is illogical and really, really dumb, then by guilt by association, the opinion that it arose from must be illogical and idiotic as well.
    AJP: Sorry, Nij. why must the Brits be continuously apologizing over stuff no one can figure out. “Never apologize, never explain.” I think it’s their dreary weather. “sorry”, “so sorry”, “oh sorry”, it’s all they say–if they bump you on the street or if they just look like they might be about to bump you. I think it really means, “I see you are there and I don’t want you to invent anything to get offended about.”
    AJP: the huge ochre-coloured rutabagas called turnips in North America. I think these are Swedes.
    Ochre is supposed to be some shade of tannish greenish brown. We Swedes are actually quite unhealthily pale this time of year. And we are not shaped at all like rutabagas, which are round. We are shaped hawt. That remark was intentional. Now you can apologize. Unless of course it was really meant for Emerson’s foolish thugs.

  31. A.J.P. Crown says

    It was meant for Emerson — I didn’t know he employed anyone — and for anyone else, but especially Sili, perhaps. Language has Norwegian roots, but I expect his wife’s hairdresser takes care of them.
    “Never apologize, never explain.”
    I’ve never understood the point of that, though don’t bother in this case.

  32. I really like mixing a mashed boiled turnip into the mashed potatoes. I also love Chinese pickled turnips and radishes.

  33. marie-lucie says

    Ochre is supposed to be some shade of tannish greenish brown
    greenish? true ochre (a clay including iron or manganese oxides) goes from a dark yellow through an orangey brown to a dark red. There is no greenish tinge in it. Because the less extreme shades are similar to the colour of a healthily tanned person, ochre was formerly used in many cultures as a cosmetic, and the dark red shade reminiscent of blood was often sprinkled over a body before burials.

  34. Ochres are mostly iron ores, and primitive ochre gathering probably played a role in the development of metallurgy.

  35. Okras are not ochre.

  36. marie-lucie says

    JE: primitive ochre gathering probably played a role in the development of metallurgy.
    Very interesting, JE, where can I learn more of this?

  37. David Marjanović says

    whereas the etymology of nedra is unknown.

    Loan from Germanic?

  38. David Marjanović says

    Low German in particular (otherwise explaining either the d or the e becomes tricky — though, wait, actually I have no idea about the Scandinavian languages in this respect).

  39. Never apologize, never explain; oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, a hattish answer comes up in google.
    Ochre looks green-shifted to me, especially the “yellow” variety–how else would you describe such a color that is neither yellow nor beige. If you type “ochre” in the search bar it will show a range of ochre pigments that remind me of the colors of buildings in southern Italy.

  40. Loan from Germanic?
    No, it’s probably originally *jadra (with n- from a preposition) and may be related to Greek ητορ (ētor).

  41. Swedes as odd colored vegetables:
    JE lives pretty close to the iron range, although I suspect he is not himself a ranger, that’s more apple territory. He doesn’t appear to be Swedish either, having take a rather proprietary interest in Viking vacation sight-seeing excursions on the Italian coast, although his dire threats against Hat if the Russian posts are not continued suggest he has access to Minnesotan berserker minions who can only be Swedes.
    I thought Sili was Danish.
    I forgot to mention my Swedish background before–I’m at least a quarter Swedish, but the Danish and Norwegian sides somehow got cultural dominance because of some long story involving migrations and language barriers. My grandfather’s parents both migrated to Minnesota from Sweden and only spoke Swedish at home. My great-grandfather signed his name to documents with an X and for a long time we thought he was illiterate, until we found out he subscribed to a newspaper in Swedish–there were maybe four of those in Minneapolis at the time. My great-grandmother only spoke Swedish and there are photographs of her in an elaborate black dress with an equally elaborate black hat. She would not allow freshly baked bread to be eaten right out of the oven–it had to sit overnight and be eaten the next day. Even though my grandfather grew up in a Swedish-speaking home, he only spoke English–go figure–although someone told me he could understand Swedish.

  42. Marie-Lucie: this book. It’s not an easy read but if you skip around you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff. More at my URL.
    As a mixed race person, poor Nidge was hated equally by the Swedes, the Danes, and the Norwegians. That’s why she is the way she is.
    I have talked to Swedish Americans a little older than me whose Swedish-born parents forbade them to speak Swedish. Their parents had left Sweden because they hated Sweden, which was not a mellow place at all ca. 1880-1900.
    Angry Scandinavians (the angriest of them Finns) made Minnesota politics very interesting 1900-1940, in a very productive way.

  43. Nidge? Nidge!?!! NIDGE!!??!#@*&#ﺝﻻ
    Perhaps Mr. Emerytski is a ranger after all.

  44. The closest I can place the ancestral departure from Sweden was maybe 1870 (could be off by a lot); they came by boat to Chicago and then by train west (predating Ellis Island?). The two major waves I read of were in 1860 & 1880, ten consecutive years wheat crop failure, right?, then more of the same off and on. A quarter of the Swedish population left. Mpls was the largest Swedish population town after Stockholm. I never heard of any reason for Scandihoovian anger, except the crop failures. Denmark had some conscription issues, the wealthy being able to buy their way out of service, but my illustrious ancestors were in all the armies, here and there, so who knows why the Danish and Norwegian Nijjmassons would go to so much trouble to leave. Far from being reviled, I was once invited to join a Swedish folk dance troupe.

  45. A.J.P. Crown says

    Ochre has no green, Nij, except to the extent that it’s not reddish, as umber is.
    Danish, swedes, they’re both food. ‘Finish your danish and swedes!’, we say in Norway.
    I’d no idea Benjamin Jowett said things like ‘never apologise, never explain’ (let alone PG Wodehouse). I’d always quite admired him up to now. What an extraordinary thing. Of course he probably didn’t have much to apologise for, but in general people who won’t apologise for anything must lead miserable lives.

  46. Indeed, with the eagles pulling out their eyes, etc.

  47. in general people who won’t apologise for anything must lead miserable lives”

    Never apologise for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologise for truth.”

  48. If ochre isn’t yellow and it isn’t tan and it isn’t red (unless you heat it) then what IS it, if not green? It looks to me the color of upper respiratory infection mucous.

  49. Wikipedia says it’s “usually described as golden-yellow or light yellow brown,” and that’s good enough for me.

  50. marie-lucie says

    Nijma, Wikipedia also shows a very wide range of colours for this substance, but green is not among them.

  51. A.J.P. Crown says

    Ah, that’s the Disraeli quote they mentioned, I couldn’t find it, and as a general rule the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information. Thanks. I felt sure he wouldn’t have said anything like the other one. Do you know where it’s from? No one cites its origin as far as I can see.

  52. A.J.P. Crown says

    Nij, if you choose to believe that yellow ochre is green you shouldn’t listen to all this. They’re just bullies. Make them prove you wrong, if they can. Language admits he believes it because its in Wikipedia! Maybe he’d like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge as well. Gotta go, I’m off to Wikipedia to write that black is white.

  53. Well I can read what someone else sees, but I can also see, and I see green tones. I’m not saying it’s pure green but that it’s shifted. I’ve been trying to find spectrum analysis as they do specialized tests for identifying paints for dating art, but everything out there is hidden behind paid subscriptions. When I once worked with a furniture restoration guru, color matching was a mystical art. Greens would sometimes be shifted towards blue (like traffic signals that green-blind people can see) and grays would have a lot of blue or green in them. The most counterintuitive one was adding green to tone down something that was too orange–a mahogany or orange shellac color.

  54. A.J.P. Crown says

    On the other hand you’d better make sure your screen’s adjusted correctly.

  55. Maybe he’d like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge as well.
    I actually got a great deal on that! Man, when my title comes through, I’m gonna put a toll on it and get rich! Funny, though, I haven’t heard from the guy in a while. I should ask him what’s taking so long.

  56. A.J.P. Crown says

    Just remember they pay to come INTO Manhattan, not out of it.

  57. carrying a premise through to it’s most illogical/logical conclusion (reducio ad absurdum)
    I tried to use this reducio ad absurdum thing last week on a political blog at the height of the Palestinian casualties in Gaza (or “ghaza”, as they were pronouncing it at Koran class.) Several commenters were defending the Israeli actions by bringing up every demonizing anti-Arab, anti-Moslem, and anti-Palestinian stereotype that has been used in the last ten years. Some regular readers were starting to urge Israel to do whatever it takes and to make sure Hamas should all be killed. Yikes. I’m no defender of Hamas but I’ve accepted too much Palestinian tea to sit by as my friends are treated like genetic waste. After several days of trying to write reasoned comments, I finally got fed up and said:

    Brain, oh I quite agree. Killing people is terrible and we must kill as many people as as possible to make it stop.

    Pretty much sums up the Middle East, no? Taken at face value I was agreeing with him and carrying his premise to its logical/illogical conclusion. Taken as sarcasm, it was a metaphor for the idiocy that has hindered peace in that region for longer than most of us have been alive.

  58. Here’s my favorite Russian mistranslation story: Years ago I worked for a Soviet publishing house, style editing articles for Soviet Life and other such publications. The material was dreadful, the Russian men all got drunk at lunch to survive, the Russian women spent their lunch breaks shopping to survive, and we foreign “stylists” — as we were called — lived for the occasional obscene mistake to cheer us up. One day my British colleague walked up to me, holding a text and weeping with laughter. The text was about how horrible life was in the capitalist Phillipines. In the villages, there were no schools. There were no libraries. There were no sports halls. The only thing the men had to do all day long was walk around, holding their cocks in their hands, looking for a fight.

  59. That’s great! (Also great to see you around again, mab!)

  60. Reducio
    OK, I’ll do it: that’s reductio, folks.

  61. Thanks for proofreading, Noetica, that’s what happens when you try to use a language you’re not familiar with. My flame war skilz are much better than my Latin.

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