Can I feed your Desk Green Sprinkles?

May 29, 2009  |  Articles, Voice Over Misc

The Answer to that question is … no you may not! go find your own desk and feed it.

Translating from one language to another is a challenging endeavor. I am not particularly good at it which is why I leave such things to the professionals. The other reason I don’t delve into it is because Arabic and English are languages that come from completely different origins… English is germanic in origin… and Arabic is Semetic. English is at best a few hundred years old… where as Arabic (the classical form) has remained the same for more than 1430 years.

The cultures are different. You really don’t realize how much language and the human vernacular is effected by Pop culture. A few years back almost no one but a video gamer would understand the term Woot! or FTW (For the Win). I’ll leave it to you to wiki the definitions though!

Pop Goes the Culture

I go through these phases where I discover a show and end up watching all the episodes and seasons of that show within a few months (that makes me obsessive compulsive I guess) and one of those shows is Kyle XY. If you haven’t seen the show its got a bit of Comedy a bit of Sci Fi and a few surprises here and there… but the idea is what if someone didn’t share your common popular phrases… didn’t understand where they came from… what they mean then you’ll have a whole lot of awkwardness and a bucketful of comedy!

There is a Star Trek (the next generation) episode that pits Jean-Luke Picard against an alien race that only speaks using their common history and pop culture…. I don’t know if this is the name of the episode but as far as I remember its called : Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra


That episode was probably one of my favorite in the whole 7 season run of the show. One of the phrases they used to show defeat or sadness : Shaka when the walls fell. Think about it… some of the references we use make absolutely no sense: “What’s Shakin…What’s Up… Who’s your Daddy… Fow Shizzle!” In Egypt… if you want to say ok… you say the work Ishta! which literally means… Cream! If you want to say you’re having a rough day… you say Ana batihin… I’m being grinded… freaky.. no?

Localization in the Global Era

I get many requests from localization centers to translate work for them from english to arabic. I am fluent in both languages and familiar with probably 90% of each culture’s pop references. Unfortunately that doesn’t make me linguistically adept at converting the meanings of one language to another. Especially that there are 2 significantly different forms of arabic… The classical that is somewhat timeless and intricate… and the colloquial which lacks finesse and accuracy and of course is relevant only to a specific region.

Recently a localization company sent me a script to read as an audition to join their roster of Voice Over Talent… I read through the script … over and over … maybe 10 or 15 times to try to make some sense from what I was reading. The person who translated for them did a terrible job… I don’t know if it was from English to Arabic or any other European language to Arabic but when I showed it to a translator friend of mine… he kept looking at me and asking if these people were serious?

I told him I just read it and sent it … and that satisfied them… I didn’t want to get into telling them that their translator wasn’t good (horrible in fact) because they would ask me to revise the script… and that’s a copyeditor’s job… and they aren’t paying me for that… nor do I have time to go through the script and correct other people’s work… Don’t get me wrong.. I do that sometimes… a fix here or there… that’s fine I can do that and not even charge the client… but a script like that sent to me for the audition was just …. what can I say… the closest thing to it would be is the website http://www.engrish.com that shows you horrible mistranslations from Japanese to English.

Here’s a sample!

well… the script they sent me wasnt as bad as that poster but still bad enough for most of it to be unintelligible.

What fine melons your eyes are in the moonlight gas!

Have you had any weird experience with mistranslated work? Got a soliloquy you’d like to share? Please by all means… comment away!


2 Comments


  1. And it’s not just foreign language to foreign language. One of my college instructors told us that when he was on vacation in England standing in a public square, he talked about how his pants fit him. Everyone within earshot burst into laughter! Why? In British English, “pants” means “underwear” in American English.
    Many a sitcom used this type of storyline to get laughs…the poor guy whose Japanese is so bad that he compares a woman’s beauty to that of a porcupine.
    I’ll never forget the Japanese restaurant that opened up with the flyer reading, “COME IN. YOU BE SUPRISED!”
    Walking past a storefront one day, I noticed a sign advertising a job that read, “No Expierence Necessary.” I poked my head in the doorway and said, “You know you spelled Experience wrong?” (That’s the editor in me).
    I think the ultimate was the proofreading error I caught that should have said, “Add the cream.” In actually read, “Ass the cream.”

  2. Oh I love this one! Translation is a tough one indeed… It seems everyone has their own recipe. 🙂

    We work with a really great translator & Spanish voice over talent in Bogota, Columbia… We sent him an audition in which the client used an outsourced translator for a gasoline company. My talent came back to me laughing saying that there were some serious issues with the translation & was offering to help the client fix the problems. I don’t remember the exact copy but to give you an idea… They were trying to express that they were a great company & you should use their gasoline – that it was top notch & good for your car. But the translator had actually translated that their gasoline should not be used & would damage their car. That was just one of the many mistakes. lol!

    Thank goodness my talent caught it because we had received several auditions from other Spanish talent who just read the copy & either didn’t catch it or just didn’t care.