Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tower of Babel

In the Disciple II Bible Study I’m taking, we recently read the familiar account of the Tower of Babel, in which God creates confusion in the languages of mankind. The lesson—a good one, no doubt—is not to be prideful or too trusting in mankind’s greatness. But when God throws mankind a metaphorical load of lemons like that one, I can’t help but look for the lemonade. Sure, miscommunication leads to war, conflict, hurt feelings, and humility, but hey, at times, it can be extraordinarily entertaining. So just for fun, let’s explore this upside to the Babel fall-out.

Before we start, please understand that I am incompetent in three languages. I know just enough Italian, Spanish, and Latin to embarrass myself utterly and completely in Florence, Madrid, and a medieval monastery. Frankly, it’s easy enough for me to sound like an idiot in my native tongue, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who struggle to learn another language since I have failed at it thrice.

This does not, however, keep me from laughing hysterically at the website Engrish,
where people post pictures of badly translated English on packaging, signs, t-shirts, and airplane lavatories.

Have I said how much I LOVE the internet lately?

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, here are some links to pictures in Engrish that make me happy, in a warped and weird sort of way. They prove that if you don’t try to make sense of “life, the universe, and everything,” then “life, the universe, and everything” can be highly entertaining.

When Jesus Says Yes

Do Not What?

Mailman of Butterfly

Bread Butter Pudding Isn’t the rhyme scheme nice?

My favorite, because it’s just so thought-provoking, don’t you think?

Some Engrish translations actually make sense but make you laugh anyway.


In or Out

A Lot?

Out of Control?

After you finish reading my essay, please, please go spend an hour perusing the other offerings.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled essay for a Public Service Announcement: Please note that some entries in Engrish are a bit (or more than a bit) vulgar. As of today, the first picture is particularly, um, rude. Viewer discretion is advised, and surfing Engrish when small children are around is not recommended by the Mommy Censorship Committee. Kids want to know what you’re laughing at…. You have been warned.

Back to our regular programming.

You can even make your own Engrish using Babel Fish’s free online
translating site. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Babel Fish is responsible for at least a few of the funny mistranslations on Engrish. In translation services—as in so much in life—you get what you pay for. But in this case, not paying anything can provide hours of entertainment.

First, I typed in “The world is too much with us; late and soon / Getting and spending we lay waste our powers…” (lines from a poem by William Wordsworth). Then I clicked to have this translated into Japanese, and then back into English. The result: “The world is our remainders; it is slow, and directly, profit, using, we our powers put in place wastefulness.”

I did the same with a quotation by Michael Pritchard: “Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed.” This time, I filtered it through Italian and back into English. It came out: “The fear is that small darkroom in which the negations they are developed.”

Next, I typed, “To change and to change for the better are two different things.” Filtered through German, it becomes “Too for the better to change and change are two different things.”

I could waste a lot of time playing this game. Or, filtered through Portuguese, I could “waste much time the game of this game.”

There’s a cosmic Babel Fish between men and women even when they speak the same language. Lots of books have been written trying to explain one sex to the other, but does anyone honestly think the communication gap has closed at all? What comes out of a woman’s mouth gets magically transformed into something completely different before it enters the ears of a man. “I want you to cook something light this weekend” becomes, in the ears of a man who shall remain nameless, “I want you to make a Bolognese sauce with a pound of bacon and ground pork shoulder over potato gnocchi topped with Parmesan cheese.” (Oh, my gosh…this was so good!)

Of course, the reverse is true as well. A man might say, “These steaks are thin” and the woman will hear, “You never buy the right meat and now you’re going to eat burnt offerings because you were too stupid to ask for thicker cuts.” This leads the woman, who shall remain nameless, to tell the man that he can go to the butcher himself from now on…a clear over-reaction given that the steaks ended up being perfectly medium rare and ever-so-tasty.

These are purely hypothetical examples, of course.

Language is a slippery thing, isn’t it? If people who speak the same language fluently can still have a hard time communicating, how much harder is it when other languages get dragged into the equation? Recent brain research has begun unraveling the mystery of language, but I seriously doubt that understanding more about how our brains generate language will help us overcome the communication barriers that afflict so many aspects of life on this wonderful planet. We just have to keep babbling around this life trying our best to understand and to be understood.

Perhaps a little fortune cookie wisdom from Engrish will help:

Q. What is contain it everything?
A. Wisdom

On the other hand, perhaps it won’t help at all.


  1. I LOVE Engrish! That website is my favorite when I want a good ab workout and need to use up some kleenex. Great essay - I'm so glad to have my computer back and working, I have so much catching up to do!


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