English As She Is Spoke

(This post was inspired by a from Curiosity on English As She Is Spoke. This post is not sponsored by anyone, although it may read that way. Who knows, maybe that will change in the future! *hint, hint*)

Hello everyone!

So I have been doing a lot of posting on travelling (and some on language teaching, but mostly on travelling) and I find myself in need of rectifying a situation: there are, as of yet, no posts about translation. Let me put your minds at ease by stating that this post seeks to remedy this deficiency (whether or not this is a good-quality first post is up to you to decide).

I follow a website called Curiosity, which, according to their own About Us page, seeks to make learning fun and interesting by inspiring (wait for it….wait for it….) curiosity in its readers. Curiosity posts articles on an almost hourly basis on just about anything one can imagine. These topics range
from science and technology to personal growth to food and culture and often deal with subjects that are not necessarily in the public eye, such as the World’s Busiest Airline Route (it definitely isn’t where you think) or the evidence behind the Pied Piper legend.

Unfortunately (for me at least), with the frequency that Curiosity posts, I doubt that anyone would be able to read everything as it comes out on their website, but if you have some time, you can find both articles you want to read and others that you didn’t even know you were looking for (although definitely enjoy after reading)! So today I received their newsletter (or daily digest) and the topic story was:

So naturally, I clicked on it (being a translator and all) and had a wild ride. It seems, in a time long before the Internet (1855, so not even my grandparents were around then!), people also wanted to learn other languages. In this case, two Portuguese ‘translators’ wanted to create a guide to help Portuguese students travelling to English speaking countries (like a prehistoric Erasmus exchange or something), but the problem was neither spoke English. Even worse, they had no experience with the US dialects; it should have contained American idioms and such.  What they did speak was French and what they had was enough money to buy a French-English dictionary. Then they had the brilliant idea to translate phrases and words from Portuguese to French and then from French to English. I mean, what could go wrong??? I mean, Mark Twain cited it as his favourite book. Surely it must be a masterpiece???

Well, to begin with, the result was ‘English As She is Spoke’. Yes, this is the original title. Furthermore, it is quite hard to imagine that anyone could use it as the book was translated from Portuguese to French to English. When I say translated, I mean the entire text, not just a portion of it. In other words, the original target audience, Portuguese speakers, could not read anything upon publication as there were no words left in Portuguese. Literally, the book is a list of phrases and words in English. Full stop. There is no Portuguese anywhere. This is the layout of the book:

(I am quite interested in trying ‘a little mine’ and ‘vegetables boiled to a’)

Well, those are the words, so how about some phrases? Did they at least get some of those correct (*spoiler alert* the English language dies):

Additionally, one can find sections in English As She Is Spoke entitled ‘Idiotisms and Proverbs’ (page 58) and ‘Degrees of Kindred’ (page 6), which includes family members like ‘The quater-grandfather’, ‘An guardian’, ‘A guardian’, ‘A relation’, ‘an relation’, and ‘The gossip mistress’ (mum, is that you??).

So why doesn’t this kind of translation work? Well, the problem is inherent in the nature of languages themselves. According to Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) Theory, it is impossible for everyone to perceive everything around us at all times. We simply don’t have the mental capacity to process that much data. Instead, we make decisions (subconsciously, of course) based on the world around us and other factors (or filters) about what to filter out. These filters can be broadly classified into four categories: physiological (what we actually perceive based on our biology, which is different than what, for example, a pigeon would experience. For an example, see this YouTube clip from QI, the answer is in the last ten seconds), ‘culture’ (how cultures perceive the world around them), ‘individual’ (based on experiences of a person), and ‘language’ (or that the language we use colours our perception). In other words, people from different cultures who have different experiences and speak different languages perceive their surroundings differently. In other words, languages do not overlap perfectly and, for some things, there are no direct translations. This is apparent when you try to translate concepts such as Schadenfreude (the enjoyment/pleasure that someone gets from another’s pain or embarrassment) or the differences between Almuerzo and Merienda, both of which consist of a meal around midday/early afternoon but also depends on what region of a Spanish speaking country you are in and generally translate as ‘lunch’, even though there are differences between the two and they don’t line up exactly with the second meal of the day being at midday.

This theory doesn’t say that languages/cultures/people are unable to express concepts, it is just that they have to use more words (and usually an explanation). Japanese poetry contains single unit concepts to describe the way dust plays in light shining through the canopy of a forest, but in English, we can talk about the same thing with a description (i.e. multiple units). But what this means for translators is that we have to figure out not only how to translate something, but how this something is received by the target audience. To do these, we use the generalised models.

If this isn’t making sense yet, let’s look at the following two sentences in English:

1) Forgive me, Father, I have sinned.

2) Sorry, Daddy, I have been naughty.

When you look at these two sentences, they contain classic examples of words that could be replaced for others using a thesaurus. ‘Forgive me’ and ‘sorry’ are both used to express regret or to apologise, so they are completely interchangeable, right? Well, in some cases, yes. ‘Forgive me’ is more formal than ‘sorry’, which is more universal. ‘Father’ and ‘Daddy’ are synonyms, although ‘Father’ is generally of a higher register (meaning, more formal) and ‘daddy’ of a lower one (such as a child talking to their father). ‘To sin’ and ‘to be naughty’ are also interchangeable in certain contexts, but their individual connotations are different. ‘To sin’ refers to ‘sins’, or an immoral act that goes against religious or divine law, whereas ‘to be naughty’ means to misbehave or be disobedient.

So it doesn’t seem too bad. One sentence is just more formal than the other, right? Well, yes and no. Again, it depends on the context. The first sentence is more formal and would be used in a religious context, such as someone confessing that they have done something bad (i.e. a sin) to a priest (i.e. ‘Father’). The second is definitely less formal than the first one, but its connotation definitely changes depending on context. For example, a child telling their father that they have done something naughty can give the sentence reader the feeling that the child is honest owns up to their deeds and is willing to accept consequences. In another setting, namely, someone tied naked to a bed in sex games, the sentence takes on a sexual connotation and demonstrates to the sentence reader that there is probably some BDSM/power-play action going on (oh yes, it’s raunchy!).

Since languages aren’t just a plug-and-play affaire (*badum tiss*), the type of translation of individual unit replacement simply doesn’t work. This is obvious in ‘English As She Is Spoke’. Still don’t believe me? Look at Engrish.com, which features terrible translations and terrible usage of the English language. This is also the reason why machine translators such as Google Translate won’t take over. If they do, it won’t be for a long time to come.

If you would like to view/download the 1884 version of ‘English As She Is Spoke’ (also entitled ‘A Jest in Sober Earnest’, which it had become 30 years later, but wasn’t a Jest in the first version), you can find the entire book digitised at Internet Archive. It can also be bought from retailers featuring forwards (by Mark Twain, for example) and other notes.

If you like this kind of post, let me know in the comments below. If you happen to be Curiosity and you want to get in touch to discuss steamy, hot business, call me! 😍

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