Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lost in Translation

I travel--a lot. As part of the Christian ministry that I work with, I've traveled to various corners of the former Soviet Union over 40 times. I've passed through more airports than I can remember. The reason I mention my globe-trotting is because, over and over, I've seen signs for travelers that are posted in English, but which don't convey the intended meaning.

Here's one example: Last July, I was in the Kiev-Borispol Airport in Ukraine. My flight to Moscow wouldn't leave for hours, so I roamed the building to pass time. There, near the arrivals gate, I saw that painters had recently been at work spiffing up the arrivals area. Evidence of their labor was the abundance of signs taped everywhere warning in English, "Carefully painted." I laughed out loud and snapped a photo. Obviously, the message was supposed to say something more akin to "Caution, wet paint," but the translator didn't pick quite the right words.

Another time, in Istanbul, Turkey, I decided to visit the restroom before leaving the airport. Once again I found what was surely a mistranslated message. Permanently posted above the toilet in every stall was an official request to help them save water--but flushing twice! (Did some Turkish translator trust his memory instead of checking the dictionary for the difference between once and twice?)

The point here isn't so much to laugh at human mistakes as it is to point out that a communicator can believe he has conveyed one message, when in fact he's delivered a totally different meaning. While in the white-hot heat of creating fiction, a writer knows exactly what he means as he types sentences onto the screen. However, ambiguous words and phrases can creep in. "He picked up the hammer and took a threatening step forward." Is "he" the character who was already in the room, or is "he" the newcomer who just arrived? The writer knows, but the reader doesn't. For this reason, I try not to submit any manuscript until it's had a chance to set and cool off for a day or two. With the passage of time, I'm better able to read my own words with the fresh eyes of a reader rather than the author. That way I stand a better chance of spotting my own failures to communicate exactly what I hope to say.

Ya know what I mean?


  1. so true. I think it's also important to have the person you consider to be your writing buddy or mentor give it a read as well. I have often heard that reading your own story out loud can help spot communication issues.
    Great post Rick!

  2. These are funny so thanks for sharing them. And yes, communication, knowing your audience--such important issues. That's why we need our writing buds! :)

    And Darren, that's a great point--Doc Hensley would have us read our writing out loud in class and you really do catch many things, even cadence, that way. Great stuff, guys.

  3. Great blog, Rick. I remember one about bank lingo, with a mother encouraging her son to save money, like having a CD. Her son pointed to all the CDs he already had.

    Or at work (clinical laboratory), we have a test abbreviated SDA. When I see those letters, the first thing I think of is Seventh Day Adventist.

    Then, there are things like a sign in Colorado reading "Parking For Blind Only." Or a tech asking a person if she's under Windows and she replies that might be the problem because her co-worker is under a window and he's having no problems.

    Have a great day.