Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lost in Translation

When one lives in another country, one of the greatest challenges is communication. Americans (and visitors from other English-speaking countries) often make a somewhat arrogant assumption that host nationals "should" be able to speak English, rather than the American visitor honoring the culture and people by attempting to learn a few phrases of the land that is being visited. I've seen this phenomenon far too many times to count, and it can be an embarrassment, although granted, the lingua franca in today's global community is English by default, and it is very helpful to have a native speak your language.

Because so many services and products are now targeting multiple languages, one often sees English (as well as German, Russian, Swedish, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese) on labels to assist consumers in the purchase and use of various goods, and on signs to better help tourists.

Very often, the translation is downright puzzling. Menus in Asia are notorious for fractured English translations, and often the result is humorous. Take for example the following brewing instructions on a package of Cambodian coffee, which we brought back with us because we were struck by its flavor and aroma. I'm still stymied by Step 3.