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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cultural-Linguistic Context for Language Learning

by Antonio Graceffo

English as She Is Spoke was the unfortunate title of a 19th-century Portuguese-English conversational phrase book, for English learners, written by Pedro Carolino. In the translation community, this book has attained almost legendary status, as a cautionary tale of how not to write a language book and how not to translate.

Growing up, whenever I had a difficult school exam coming up, my Italian grandmother would say to me, “nella bocca del lupo” or “in the mouth of the wolf.” It wasn’t the most comforting thing to hear before an exam. But I guess, “break a leg” isn’t much better. One thing that “nella bocca del lupo” andEnglish as She Is Spoke have in common is that they both made a lot more sense in the original language than they did when translated directly into English.
It is nearly impossible for students with a European native tongue to do a word-for-word translation and have it make sense in English. For example, this German sentence would be completely incomprehensible if directly translated: Hemingway betätigte sich nicht nur als Schriftsteller, sondern war auch Reporter und Kriegsberichterstatter, zugleich Abenteurer, Hochseefischer und Großwildjäger, was sich in seinem Werk niederschlägt.
Direct word for word translation: Hemingway busied himself not only as an author, but was also reporter and warcorrespondent, atthesametime adventurer,deepseafisherman and bigwildhunter which self in his work reflected
German is one of the primary origins of the English language, and yet the composition of the language is completely different. Can you imagine now, taking Chinese sentences, Chinese brains and Chinese thinking, and simply plugging in English words? The results would be even further from sensible communication.
False Translations
Here are some examples of Chinese words whose common dictionary definition in no way reflects the complex connotations assigned to them by native speakers.
“Wanr” is normally translated as “play”. And in some instances, it does mean “to play”, as a child plays. But it also means to relax, to engage in recreational activities. So if you go on holiday, a Chinese friend might ask you, “How did you play on your holiday?” To which you would answer, “I played well.” Of if you didn’t enjoy the holiday, you would say, “Oh, it was bad play.”
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