16 October 2010

On Mistranlsations

Although I usually teach just the 14-18 year old crowd, yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a 1st Form (10-11 year olds) classroom, where the students are in their first year of English.  My teacher and I presented them with the taxing activity of describing cartoon pirates, in writing, with the useful English expressions "he's got a..." and "he hasn't got a..." 

Many of the youngsters shied away from my towering American height, but many more tried to impress me with fancy English sentences about their cartoon pirates.  One particularly ambitious lad proudly presented me his complicated, multiword sentence, "In his face is all big."  I felt that something had been lost in translation, so I asked what he was trying to say in German, to which he responded, "In seinem Gesicht ist alles groß," which means the same thing, fairly literally.  Then I thought maybe the problem was not the English language, but rather with this peculiar's idea of describing faces.  I was surprised to find out later that this is an appropriate way say in German that somebody has a large nose and ears.

And this is sadly why most things cannot be translated literally, why languages are difficult to learn, and why Google Translate cannot do your homework (yet).  And today's German word is der Übersetzsungfehler, or "mistranslation."  The fact that two of my German words of the day were types of mistakes (der Tippfehler)  be a reflection of how flawlessly I've been conducting my affairs....

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