Lots in Translation

July 6, 2020

Translating words is one thing, but there is more to it.  There is a lot more to it.  Pronunciation, cultural context, and appropriate usage also make a difference.

In Venezuela, our U.S. Account Executive decided to present our new Camay radio creative.  The problem came when he got to where the girl in the commercial said “Dios mio” which he pronounced as “Dios meó” – looks about the same, doesn’t it?  When he said it, the room broke out in laughter.  He looked confused and repeated it again.  More laughter.

We then pointed out that instead of saying “my god” what his mid-western U.S. accent had said was “god peed.”

Meó is the past tense for the verb mear which means to pee, not the kind of word you learn in classes where the more polite way to say it is: “orinar.”  So much for the Spanish class.

These kinds of mistakes can also be made with English. Another day in Venezuela, two U.S. Account Managers were in my office when one of the attractive young Venezuelan women working in the agency came into my office to ask a question.

She had just returned from a trip to the U.S. and was proudly wearing a souvenir T-shirt that said “Beaver College” on it.

We must have been having a juvenile conversation in English because when the two of them saw the t-shirt they could not stop themselves from giggling.  Our young Venezuelan co-worker turned red and left my office.  She returned later, after they were gone, to ask me what the guys were laughing about, feeling self conscious.

Now how do you explain to a pretty 21-year-old girl why two gringos were laughing at her t-shirt when she just bought it in the U.S.?

So, I asked her if she knew what the words on her t-shirt meant.  She said it was from a U.S. college.  Then I asked about the word “beaver” which I translated as “castor” in Spanish.  She was still confused.

“Okay,” I said, “think of a part of your body that is like a castor.  It has soft fur and gets wet from time to time…”

She stopped for a second.  Then a look came on her face.  “NO!!” she said.  She immediately turned around, went home and changed.  She never wore the t-shirt again.

If it is any consolation to her, Beaver College is a real college located near Philadelphia. They decided to change their name in 2001 to Arcadia University. Probably more juvenile humour drove them to it.  It is not just the word, but the cultural context it is presented in.

Our P&G detergent had a slogan, “Arranca el sucio imposible” which had been translated literally for us as “Extirpates the impossible dirt” – nice job except no one knew what “extirpates” meant.  We consulted the dictionary and thereafter changed it to “Gets out.”  You have to use common parlance to be understood.

There are lots of underlying meanings to take into consideration when translating, make sure you take them into account.  Always check with native speakers.

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