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Lost or found in translation

Recently, we saw a lot of searches for the word bumbler. There was a massive spike which lasted about a week towards the end of November.

The reason, it turned out, was an article in the Economist magazine about the President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou. ‘The country appears to agree on one thing’ wrote the Economist author. ‘Mr Ma is an ineffectual bumbler.’

We don’t have an entry for bumbler, as it is very low frequency, but it means someone who bumbles – who does things in an unfocused, unhurried, slightly ineffectual but not really harmful way. There’s an almost affectionate undertone to the word.

Most Taiwanese found out about this by reading reports in the Taiwanese press, in which the word bumbler was translated into Chinese as 笨蛋.Those who know Chinese see this as a much more insulting term, equivalent to dimwit or ignoramus.

A diplomatic incident nearly ensued. The Asia editor of the Economist, Dominic Ziegler, explained to the Taiwanese authorities that the word bumbler had been ‘irresponsibly mistranslated’, and that it was a ‘gross mistranslation’.

Google translate confirms that 笨蛋 is a much stronger term than bumbler, offering (among others) fool, cretin, dope for the interjection, and dimwit, donkey, noodle for the noun. But Google translate isn’t perfect. If you ask Google translate to put bumbler into Chinese, you get 笨拙的. If you then put笨拙的 back into English, you get clumsy. And if you put clumsy back in, you get笨拙…

Taiwanese poet Yu Kuang-chung was reported as saying that ‘bumbler actually means clumsy, which also represents the spirits of reliable, responsible and deliberate.’ He was described in the article as an expert on translation, so his reference to clumsy probaby wasn’t inspired by Google translate.

This is not the first time that mistranslations or misinterpretations have caused diplomatic ripples. Many years ago, when US President Jimmy Carter visited Poland, his statement ‘I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future,’ became, ‘I desire the Poles carnally’ in the hands of a translator who, though skilled in translating written Polish was much less familiar with the spoken language.

In the past, such problems have happened through the accidental errors of humans. It’s tempting to think that with the advent of machine translation, such incidents will be avoided, at least with written translation. But machine translation still has a long way to go, as we’ve already seen, and as this attempt demonstrates:

‘I got out of the car and said “thanks for the lift”’ is rendered into French by Google translate as ‘Je suis sorti de la voiture et dit: «Merci pour l’ascenseur”.’ Into Russian as ‘Я вышел из машины и сказал: “Спасибо за лифт”.’ Both of these use the word for an elevator. Admittedly, it does rather better into Hungarian with ‘Kiszálltam a kocsiból, és azt mondta: “köszönöm a fuvart.”‘

And it’s pretty good with formulae, so to all our followers, here’s wishing you a Happy New Year, or…

नया साल मुबारकС Новым годомFeliz año nuevoGlückliches neues Jahr Feliz ano novoSzczęśliwego nowego roku Buon anno Bonne année Bhliain nua sásta Selamat tahun baru Gelukkig Nieuwjaar Šťastný Nový Rokபுத்தாண்டுЗ Новим роком明けましておめでとうございます• 新年好 Yeni yılın kutlu olsunGott nytt årสวัสดีปีใหม่An nou fericitChúc mừng năm mới Boldog új évet 새해 복 많이 받으세요Godt NyttårΕυτυχισμένο το νέο έτοςŠťastný Nový Rok З Новым годамЧестита нова година Onnellista uutta vuotta • سنة جديدة سعيدة

About the author


Stephen Bullon


  • I’m a translator and interpreter. My comments are:
    1- People in general are not educated in the need of hiring a PROFESSIONAL and good linguist.
    2- Nothing against machine translation if used as an aid, not a mean.
    3- Your citation about Jimmy Carter in Poland shows how much people mix up our profession. The event occurred with an interpreter, not a translator..

  • Thais Lips: I agree with your first two points. On the third point, I think the issue is that the person involved was normally a translator from written Polish, and not an interpreter, which was partly why the problem arose.

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