My personal favourite lost-in-translation moment happened shortly after I moved to Japan.
My personal favourite lost-in-translation moment happened shortly after I moved to Japan and misremembered the word to ask for the cheque in a restaurant. I kept asking for o-tanjō to the increasingly bewildered waitress. O-tanjō! O-tanjō! O-tanjō!! (It was one of the only words I knew). After some frantic whispers and panicked deliberations with other wait staff, the waitress proffered a cake and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Most confusing. — I did, however, learn the big importance of small differences when navigating a culture different to one’s own, such as the not-inconsequential difference between o-tanjō (birthday) and o-kanjō (the cheque).
The history of branding is replete with stories of companies who failed to do their transcreation homework, to comical and expensive ends. “Finger Lickin’ Good” has served KFC well since the 1950s, but a careless translation when they entered the Chinese market had customers encouraged to “Eat Your Fingers Off”. Taking something out of it’s cultural context and dropping it into another is not as easy as Google Translate may have us believe.
From savoir-faire to schadenfreude, the words we use — and what we really mean when we use them — are caught up in the culture we’re in. “A fine kettle of fish” may be a problematic situation for you and me, but for Jacques in Marseille, it may just be recipe for bouillabaisse.