Friday, 9 July 2010

Five Forms of Howler - Michelle Lovric

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:
tartufo nero
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


catdownunder said...

True one - a child from a local school told her grandmother that they had a visit from the "Arch-biscuit".

Cathy Butler said...

Brilliant, Michelle! The one about the Polish trout will have me chuckling on my deathbed.

Mary Hoffman said...

I love the 700 porcupines! It must have given Solomon some memorable nights.

Brilliant, Michele!

michelle lovric said...

Re the porcupines, perhaps King Solomon liked a spiny bed, being a bit of a fakir,by all accounts?

steeleweed said...

The Solomon comment reminded me of the little girl who composed a valentine:

"If you will be my valentine, I will will be your concubine."

She didn't know what concubine meant, but figured if it was in the Bible it must be something good.


Rosalind Adam said...

I love this sort of thing. My favourite is the child-eating bulldog. I must try that Babel Fish trick. Thanks for sharing it with us.

frances thomas said...

someone visiting our local church admired the 'rude screen'

Katherine Langrish said...

In a restaurant near Delphi we found some interesting items on the menu, including 'goat soup' (which it probably was) , 'grilled intestines' and 'entrails on a stick'.

Jan Markley said...

Those are too funny. Menus are particularly funny. In a Turkish resort town, one restaurant was serving 'women's dimension balls' - basically very fatty meatballs and it was explained to me that after consuming them your dimensions will change i.e., your hips will get bigger

I'd serve my cats mustache food ... not!

michelle lovric said...

My cat wouldn't touch Moustache either, Jan. It is only 29 centesimi a sachet. She won't eat anything that's less that 75.

Another one I forgot to put in ... a Venetian restaurant that has recently Babel-Fished its menu:
Plate of Affected Mix.

Affettati are cured meats like ham, but the word is in the form of the plural past participle -'cured'. You can just see where it all went wrong.

There are at least two hotels that describe their view as 'deep-breathing' because 'mozzafiato' (breathtaking)has defeated their translation tool.

Kath, I'd stick to the vegetarian menu next tiem you are in India.

Debs Riccio said...

So, So , so funny - thanks for the laugh.. I love 'wrong words'!
Written on a sun-cream bottle in Greece, I read:"for sensible skin" - and wasn't sure it was for me... and
printed on some napkins in a Greek restaurant were the words:
"Welk come" which I wasn't sure was a local delicacy or a greeting!

Jeff Cotton said...

Even The Guardian(?) last week had a church with a knave.

Stroppy Author said...

This is fantastic, even if completely irrelevant ;-) I have a couple of spoken ones from tour guides.

In Albania I was told repeatedly that the Albanian children have 'physical tampering' every day. No, not child abuse - 'tempering', ie PE.

In Mongolia, I was told dangerous snakes are all very short. I spent two weeks poking every long snake I could find. Then I discovered the guide had meant 'in short supply', or scarce. Lucky they were scarce or I might have poked one.

Anonymous said...

When my then 8-year-old son was asked what he wanted for dinner one evening he asked for fish gateaux. Or rather, he asked for it in Swedish, having translated fish cake fairly literally. I almost gagged at the thought of this gateaux.

Michelle, you and I must have the same notes on amusing howlers. I still laugh at them, with tears running. (Where to, I'm not sure.)