Signs of Confusion

Travel Stories: Bad translations abound. In a Thai restaurant, Rolf Potts struggles to make sense of them.

12.03.04 | 9:32 PM ET

One afternoon late last year, I went out for lunch at a restaurant not far from the south Thailand guesthouse where I’d been staying. My landlady ran the place, and on this day she seemed particularly pleased to see me. “We have new English menu!” she exclaimed, presenting me with a glossy list of entrees.

I took a seat and scanned the menu, which listed the kinds of dishes I’d always eaten there—red curry, paad thai, tom yam. Then, amidst the standard delicacies, I noticed a dish I’d never before sampled in this part of the world: FRIED RICE WITH CRAP.

Concerned, I took the menu over to my landlady. “I think this dish is a mistake,” I told her.

“Oh, no!” she replied brightly. “We make seafood for you!  Fresh from water!”

I gave my landlady a skeptical look. “But surely ‘crap’ is not what you meant to write.”

“Yes, crap! Very delicious!”

I considered this. “Do you by chance mean ‘carp’?”

“No!” she laughed. “Crap!” She splayed her hands and mimicked the scuttling movement of a crustacean.

“Oh, you mean crab. C-R-A-B. Not C-R-A-P.”

“Yes!” she said, handing the menu back to me. “Crab. Both sound same to me.” Then, almost as an afterthought, she asked: “What means ‘crap’?”

This was not the first time I’d chanced into such an awkwardly comical situation in Thailand. At the central market in Ranong, one could buy packets of “COCK CONDITIONING PILLS” (which I very much hope are for roosters), and the local supermarket did fast trade in a brand of toilet paper called “Sit and Smile.” Perhaps most notably, however, a toy vendor along the main street sold packs of tiny plastic animals that came with a sober warning for parents: “BE CAREFUL OF BEING EATEN BY SMALL CHILDREN.”

To be sure, Thailand holds no monopoly on poorly translated English. Some years ago, a series of forwarded e-mails made the rounds, describing bizarre signs posted in Kenyan restaurants (“Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager”), Norwegian cocktail lounges (“Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar”), and Russian monasteries (“You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday”). A similar round of emails celebrated the linguistic gaffes that resulted when American corporations introduced new slogans into foreign markets. In Mexico, for example, “Got Milk?” translated into the decidedly un-hip slogan, “Are You Lactating?”

No doubt this tradition of global mistranslation goes back to the days when Greek and Roman tourists frequented the sights of Anatolia and Egypt (one can imagine shaky Latin letters scrawled onto papyrus outside an Alexandria dry-cleaner: “Let us put happiness in your toga!”), but the modern practice of publicly butchering English can be traced back to the American occupation of post-war Japan in the 1940s and ‘50s. There,  amidst the sudden rush to emulate all things Western, G.I.‘s were able to buy tubes of “Snot” brand toothpaste, and the Japanese brass band that played at General MacArthur’s election reputedly commissioned a banner that read: “We pray for General MacArthur’s erection.” To this day, Japan still leads the world in mistranslated English (see Engrish.com for a splendid collection).

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Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


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