Shoes on hands, pears in light fittings
and snails without clothes

If there is one thing that we translators sometimes enjoy even more than an excellent translation, it is a flawed one. (And, as with any translation, context is key here … bear with me.) Seeing ourselves as bastions of phraseological felicity and fidelity, we dutifully spend our days toiling away on our own flawless translations and eradicating any grammatical, lexical and orthographical irregularities from the texts we read. But we occasionally come across the odd mistranslation that, in spite of its obvious flaws, simply puts a smile on our faces.

Perhaps all that striving for perfection leaves us feeling a little too honest and upright, a little too noble. From time to time the irresistible urge to cast off the shackles of correctness overcomes us. To put it another way: we occasionally get a little bored and seek light relief in the peculiarities of the languages we work with.

180_single-pear-bulb

A glow pear

It is in such moments that we sometimes find ourselves fascinated by a certain type of linguistic mishap that would usually have us biting the edge of the table1 in frustration – the overly literal translation. Usually we would simply deride such texts as being poorly translated, but occasionally we are able to ignore our sense of professional pride and appreciate their unintentional humour. We sometimes even compose our own (just for fun of course). The ways in which we delight at such things are manifold, but one of the simplest joys is a gift from German nomenclature, which can at times be exceptionally … descriptive.

The language is rife with delightful words that never fail to elicit a chuckle from us language nerds; words that, when translated literally into English, result in wonderfully weird expressions such as naked snail, air-cushion boat, hand shoes, glow pear, stink animal, chest wart and tooth meat2. It’s tempting to think that English could benefit from adopting a few of these terms … on second thoughts, perhaps then we wouldn´t find them nearly as endearing – the magic would be lost. And we would be left with one less way to pass the time between translation jobs.

Robert Fawcett

1 “In die Tischkante beissen” is a German idiom that translates literally as “bite into the edge of the table”; the English equivalent would be something along the lines of “tear one’s hair out”.
2 Slug (Nacktschnecke), hovercraft (Luftkissenboot), gloves (Handschuhe), lightbulb (Glühbirne), skunk (Stinktier), nipple (Brustwarze), gums (Zahnfleisch).

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