Foreign Words: Translating

February 25, 2010: Issue 329

Lost in translation

Years ago, a friend of ours returned to her Illinois home after a stint as an exchange student in France. Her family had strung a beautifully hand-lettered banner across the living room. “Accueil maison,” it read. Translation: “Reception house.”

Her family was trying, of course, to say “Welcome home.” And that banner illustrates the danger of using a dictionary to translate word-for-word into an unfamiliar language.


When we drop French phrases into Country French copy or use Spanish heds for Mexican recipes, we should talk to someone who speaks the language. There’s too much a single entry in a Cassell’s dictionary can’t tell you.

One example: In Romance languages, adjectives must agree with nouns in gender and number. Look up crazy in Spanish and you find loco. Look up friend and you find amigo. So amigo loco means crazy friend. But the dictionary doesn’t explain that if your crazy friend is a woman, the term shifts to amiga loca.

A little help, por favor? Are you fluent or conversant in a language other than English? Let us know, and we’ll add it to our list of foreign language speakers in the BHG Stylebook.


Just for fun: To see how badly garbled a message can get, play with the Babel Fish tool. Translate a phrase out of English and back again. “All you need is love,” after a trip to German and back, comes out “Everything, which needs you, is love.”

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