Mistranslations of the Third Kind


Over at David Nessle‘s, his witty readers are discussing translations — more particularly, bad translations. I collect crap translations from English to Swedish, so I decided to offer some to you, Dear Reader. To make this palatable to non-Swedish-speakers, I’ll add a second step to explain what the Swedish mistranslation means literally in each case.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Main character drives around on a rainy night looking for a place called Cornflower. Meeting someone, he asks for directions, but the other guy just drives off and our hero yells an insult after him.

“Excuse me — is this the way to Cornflower? … Turkey!”

Ursäkta, var ligger Cornflower? I Turkiet?

“Excuse me, where is Cornflower? In Turkey?”

Thriller novel about crazy man who takes a hostage and barricades himself with a bomb in Central Park. (Don’t remember title, please help.)

“He was very proud of his small arms.”

Han var mycket stolt över sina små armar.

“He was very proud of his small upper extremities.”

“Tanks were assembling in nearby streets.”

Tankbilar samlades på gatorna runt omkring.

“Tank trucks were assembling in nearby streets.”

“He stopped dead.”

Han stoppade döden.

“He stopped death.”

“We’ve got to do something about that flat [tyre].”

Vi måste göra något åt den där lägenheten.

“We’ve got to do something about that apartment.”

Finally, a tale told by my good friend Ylva about one of her first translation jobs, taken on while she was still in high school. (She later went on to become one of Sweden’s best and most prolific translators of speculative fiction.) Teen Ylva calls her mother, a teacher, and says, on the verge of tears, “Oh Mom, I just can’t figure this out! It says here that the hero is wearing a piece of cod!”

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10 thoughts on “Mistranslations of the Third Kind

  1. Cool! I noticed your comment about scanning thin paper with text on the reverse side. There’s a neat way to get rid of the stuff on the other side: put whatever you want to scan face-down on the glass and cover it with a sheet of black paper. The text on the reverse gets drowned out.


  2. My everlasting favourite is when the Millennium Falcon approaches the death star and someone, I think it’s Han Solo, snaps “Fly casually!”.

    The subtitles said: “Flyg som om det regnar!”, meaning “Fly like it’s raining!”

    Which won’t make sense to people unfamiliar with Swedish idioms, obviously. But I have successfully made my British beau adopt and use the phrase!


  3. “som om det regnar” sounds a bit weird in this context – he should turn on the windshield wipers?. But then, I have a hard time coming up with anything better for that translation. If I had done the translation (and I have actually done some translation work), I’d skip the flying part altogether and use an expression like “låtsas som ingenting”.


  4. Sometimes, they don’t get the subtitles right even when the voices have been translated, as they usually are in children’s movies.

    My personal favorite in this category is Disney’s “Robin Hood”. At the end of a successful raid on the castle, one of the members of the merry band cries out: “Mot Sherwood-skogen!” (“Towards Sherwood Forest!”).

    The subtitle said: “Kör mot skogen!” (“Drive towards the forest!”).

    In more recent years, this has actually been corrected.


  5. Nothing pisses me off more than inept translators of english/american programs/sitcoms. I don’t mean problems with untranslatable jokes and too little space to really make it meaningful – that’s just problematic and I sympathize. But stupid translations that are completely wrong, misses the point, and make incomprehensible sentences grates on my nervers, Maybe I should try to get that as a job when I’ve finished my thesis and have made myself completely uninteresting to the job market.

    Of course that book of Martin’s seems to have been translated by Babel Fish…

    Academic: Will work for minimum wage – or less.


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