Who’d have thought dictionaries could be sexy?

I take it back, not all dictionaries are bad. Without a word of a lie, not half an hour after I posted my last piece about dictionaries and how over-rated they can be, a book (an unsolicited one I might add) landed on my desk which made me wonder whether dictionaries really can be useful after all. I’m a little hesitant to say what this book is about partly because I know I will be swamped by dozens of comment spammers offering me all manner of filth and potions, and partly because I don’t think anyone will believe me. It’s a dictionary of sex terms. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.

Ooh the things I found out in that book!

Ooh, it goes where?!

Respected German publisher of dictionaries Langenscheidt has teamed up with leading “sexperts” Erika Berger and Lilo Wanders to give us its latest novelty dictionary, “Langenscheidt Sex-Deutsch/Deutsch-Sex” – a pocket-sized, 128 page dictionary explaining the various terms and jargon one might encounter. All I can say is that – sweet and innocent soul that I am – it very nearly turned my hair white reading all of those dirty words. Now it’s written in German but if heavy metal is a good reason to learn a new language, then carnal gymnastics might  be too. Without going into too much detail for obvious reasons, it explains things like how the word “English” in Germany is used as a euphemism for S&M and what “Pornflakes” and “Clinton Monogamy” are – I won’t write it for fear of traumatising those of a more sensitive disposition.

In fairness, it’s a tiny little book and it’s probably not enough to corrupt the youth of our nation (no, hold on, it might actually) but – and this is important – it does actually perform a public service. Can you imagine trying to find translations and definitions for various coitus-related concepts for yourself? No matter how legitimate and pure your intentions, typing these words into Google will open up a whole world of nastiness right there on your monitor. Get it wrong and you could end up unemployed, divorced or on some sort of international register of sex offenders.

So yes, dictionaries can be useful but more than that, they can be quite funny too.


Keep smiling…

I’ll be honest, I’m really busy at the moment marking a PhD and preparing lectures for the new semester so I’m taking the easy way out and going for some cheap laughs. But seriously, it is easy sometimes to forget what it was like to learn our first foreign language. Languages open up a whole new world or cultures, people, places food and experiences but learning them is hard work and it takes perseverance and practice…

…but eventually you’ll become fluent and you may even go on to add some more languages to your repertoire

Have a good weekend!


I love you just the way you are…

I saw this when I was in Shanghai. Great name for a shop... really attracts the customers

I took this when I was in Shanghai. Great name for a shop... really attracts the customers

It was with a twinge of mild sadness that I heard the news that authorities in Shanghai are looking to clean up the city’s linguistic image ahead of next year’s World Expo. The city which apparently is famous for quirky and sometimes downright bizarre signs in English has decided that the displays of prowess in using online machine translation systems, which have yielded such gems as the restaurant called “Translate server error“, bring shame on the city and must be eliminated.

I have written about the perils of using online machine translation systems before and while I haven’t veered from my original position that they are in no way a substitute for a real translation, I am a little sad that the kind of translation howlers you see while on holidays might be under threat. Apart from being incontinence-inducingly funny, they sometimes give you a fascinating  insight into the psychology of a language and even of a whole culture which you won’t find in any guidebook or in any lecture. Like a sort of linguistic crash scene investigator you can sift through the translational wreckage and piece together a story to explain what makes people tick. Of course this works best when the bad translation is the work of a human translator but even a bad machine translation can show you the idiosyncrasies of a language. I’m starting to see now what Lawrence Venuti (whose translation theories I have tended to dismiss as nuttier than squirrel poo, especially when he talks about ethnocentric violence) means when he pushes for foreignising translations. When you walk down a street with badly translated signs, you know you’re in a foreign country, not some sanitised, facsimile high-street that you could find anywhere in the world and that makes it more exciting.

Now for some reason the Chinese examples always seem to attract more publicity and it’s possible that the structural differences between the two languages might have something to do with it but there are hugely comical translation train-wrecks in all languages. For me, one of my favourites is the Welsh road sign which, instead of saying  “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only” said  “I am out of the office at the moment”. It turns out someone at the council roads department sent an email to their in-house translation department where the staff were on holiday and had set an auto-responder with the following message in Welsh: “I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.”[sic] Unfortunately our linguistically deficient council official mistook this Welsh text for the translation and had it printed on a massive sign and placed at the side of a road where it stayed until Welsh-speaking members of the public alerted the council. As people much cooler than I am would say: “Fail!”.

Thanks for sharing...

Thanks for sharing...

Anyway, if people start cleaning up their acts linguistically, especially in tourist-related areas, how much duller will life be? A lot probably. I like the fact that the English language is regularly dismembered by enthusiastic and well-meaning foreigners and I hope translation boo-boos like this don’t disappear altogether. It makes the language fun and it distracts from the carnage carried out by supposed native-speakers every day. I’m sure the same thing goes on in other languages. There is a book called Übelsetzungen which showcases some atrocious “into German” translations – if you speak German it’s definitely worth having a look. Just in case the worst does happen and mistranslations suddenly disappear, here are some classic examples of translations gone wrong courtesy of Charlie Croker’s “Lost in Translation

  • “Good appearance no watermelon please”
  • “Our Mongolian hotpot buffet guarantees you will be able to eat all you wish until you are fed up”
  • “Smart noshery makes u slobber”
  • “Danger prohibited aboard this boat”
  • “We try our best to decrease your life”
  • “Be careful to butt head on wall”
  • “Please  take one step forward and crap twice”

Oh and one last sign which probably doesn’t need any translation…

And you thought Canada only had two official languages?

And you thought Canada only had two official languages?


Will Work For Beer

As I was trawling through the Internet looking for odd and interesting t-shirts (a bit of a hobby of mine, don’t ask!) I stumbled across the website and, having gotten tired of browsing through the thousands of designs, I started throwing random words into the search box. Don’t ask me why but somehow the word “translator” made an appearance. Lo and behold it actually turned up 4160 results. Insane, I thought. Madness, even! There is no way you can put translation on a t-shirt and make it even remotely cool. I was kinda right, lots of them are only tenuously linked to languages while some of them are buttock-clenchingly cheesy and twee with silliness like “Super Translator” or “Translator with Attitude” or even worse “My Mommy is a Translator” but then I found this one…

Translator - Will Work for Beer (

Translator - The "Will Work for Beer" Tour 2009 (

I really like this, a lot! OK, in the scheme of things it’s not the funniest t-shirt in the world and you certainly won’t have swarms of adoring and morally questionable groupies basking in your reflected multilingual, rockstar-like glow if you wear it, but it’s nice to see that at least someone thinks translators could have a sense of humour, and dagnammit, a liking for beer… could this be the coolest thing ever to happen to translation? Probably.