Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Strange language

Funny things, languages. They are useful things for expressing opinions, getting ideas across and communicating in general, but they can be awkward, too.

Elise was in the hospital yesterday. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in both hands. Apparently something fairly typical for women of a more than a certain age. Anyway, she has now had both hands done. The first hand was operated on a few weeks ago and, when I was emailing someone about it, I mentioned that the one hand had been operated on earlier that day and that the right hand would be operated on in a few weeks time. It looked as if the wrong hand had been operated on, which was not the case, of course. The operation had been on the left hand, which was not wrong, but right, even though it was left. And it was quite right that the right hand would be operated on in a few weeks, as the left one had now been done, so even though it looked as if the surgeon had operated on the wrong hand, that was wrong, as the hand was the left one, which was right at the time, though not in space. Right?

Well, Elise's second operation went well and she is now home, somewhat hampered by a large dressing on her right hand, wrist and forearm. Still, she has yours truly to look after her, so she is in good hands.

Language difficulties are not limited to English, even though its strange spellings and pronunciations might make it seem so to foreigners trying to make head or tail of the language. All languages have their peculiarities, and sometimes these pop up between languages, especially those that are closely related. Take the Dutch and German words for sea and lake, for example. In Dutch, these are zee and meer; in German they are See and Meer (all German nouns are capitalised). Well, that's not quite correct, for although Dutch and German are really very closely related, and although zee sounds like See and meer sounds like Meer, (now comes the tricky bit) See is actually meer and Meer is zee! (In other words, the Geman word for lake is See, and the word for sea is Meer.)

Such obvious pitfalls for translators can lead to amusing errors. The Dutch equivalent of current is aktueel, which sounds a lot like the English word actual. However, the Dutch equivalent of actual is feitelijk, so aktueel can be a false friend for the translator. This is exactly what has occurred with the naming of a clothes shop just outside Ghent, in Belgium. The owners obviously wanted to call the shop by a name equivalent to the Dutch combination, Aktuele Mode, which means Current Fashion. Obvious, they must have thought: aktueel is clearly the same word as actual, and mode is fashion, so let's call the shop Actual Fashion. And that is exactly the name that appears in large letters. So to native English speakers, it looks like something out of the East End that sells yer actual fashion, know what I mean?

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