Oh dear. How did this happen?
Here’s my theory.
In Italian, you’d translate the cat’s whiskers as her ‘baffi’.
But, in Italian, the same word ‘baffi’ is also used to signify human whiskers: a moustache.
The internet’s an anthropomorphizing entity. So if you used an internet tool like Babel Fish to translate ‘baffi’ from Italian back to English, then you’d probably get ‘moustache’.
And I bet that the creative ponytails at this Italian cat-food company did just that, trying to come up with a brand that might profit from association with the world’s best-known cat food – without actually using the copyrighted logotype.
I know translation howlers are hardly a novelty. As the Arab proverb goes, a fool’s soul is always dancing on the tip of his tongue. My excuse for trotting them out on ABBA is that I’m going to offer a writing tip based on howler humour.
To give a character a funny foreign flavour, I sometimes go the Babel Fish route to create the kind of near-misses that are inherently amusing. I jiggle a phrase (not just a word) backwards and forwards between English and Italian with Babel Fish until I come up with a mistake that is clearly just that, but which bears a detectable resemblance to what is right.
Try it. It works with any two languages. Another way to create a howler is to delete all the punctuation in a paragraph and see what happens. Faux-naïve juxtaposition can work well, too.
‘Moustache’ is a recent serendipitous find. I nurture a long-term collection of howlers, originally researched for a book that I did for Past Times a zillion years ago. They seem to fall into five main categories, starting with over-ambitious marketing, like Moustache.
1. Marketing Howlers
This packet of ready-made pastry will make enough for four persons or twelve tarts.
WANTED: woman to wash iron and milk two cows.
FOR SALE: A bulldog. Will eat anything. Very fond of children.
Chinese Tailor. Ladies given fits upstairs.
2. Travel Howlers
A guide to Mostar:Mostar has a Mediterranean climate with long warm summers and mild
winters. Due to these ideal climatic conditions Mostar has practically no
dead tourist season.
In the lobby of a Moscow hotel, with a Russian Orthodox monastery across the street:You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday.
In a flyer from a Polish hotel:As for the trout served you at the hotel Monopol, you will be singing its praise to your grandchildren as you lie on your deathbed.
3. Menu Howlers
On the menu of a Polish hotel:
Limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people’s fashion.
One the menu of a German restaurant:Pig in the family way.
On an Italian menu:
hypocrite with chocolate
Menu posted outside a Venetian restaurant:
Pig in Green Granny Gravy
4. Officialese and Instructional Howlers
In a Belgrade hotel elevator:To move the cabin, push button for wishing floor. If the cabin should enter more persons, each one should press a number of wishing floor. Driving then is going alphabetically by national order.
In a Budapest zoo:
Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.
On a Japanese road sign:
Give big space to festive dog that makes sport in the highway. Avoid entanglement of dog with your spoke wheel. Go soothingly on the grease mud as there lurk the skid demon.
A childcare manual:If the baby does not thrive on fresh milk, it should be boiled.
5. Schoolboy Howlers
The emblem of Dionysus was a huge callus.
The gorgons looked like women only more horrible.
The King wore a scarlet coat trimmed with vermin.
Solomon, one of David’s sons, had 300 wives and 700 porcupines.
Salome did the Dance of the Seven Veils in front of Harrods.
Michelle Lovric’s website
Babel Fish site