There was –I learned yesterday– something of marketing hitch when Coca Cola was originally introduced to China. A Chinese phonetic rendering of the name –“Ko Kah Ko Lah” sounded fine to western ears. The only trouble was that to the Chinese the phrase Ko-Kah-Ko-Lah means…”Bite the Wax Tadpole”.
Things go better when you hire a good translator.
This useful piece of information came from Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio show yesterday: Brian –who invited call-in examples– was interviewing Elizabeth Little, author of what sounded like a very amusing collection of linguistic screwups from all over the globe. It also seemed to illustrate quite a bit about the evolution of language in different cultures.
There were lots of phone-in examples, aimed at supplying words or phrases from an original language that had no equivalent in English. As it happened, for some reason, Portugese seems to be an especially fine source of “wax tadpole” type phrases. Also some especially interesting contributions (some subtle, some broad, and all very funny) from Indian immigrants –I found that particular brand of humor especially rich and insightful.
I had quite a few examples from Irish Gaelic –it was hard to pick one. But I did myself call-in to Brian a particular favorite. Written in modern Irish “mar dheadh” and pronounced “morr-ya”, it means “as a joke”, or “I don’t really mean that”. In Ireland one would say something in English and then add “morr-ya” at the end, which to someone in the know, meant “I don’t really mean what I just said in English”. One can see a multitude of uses for such a phrase over the course of 800 years of often contentious or fun-poking Irish-English communication.
When I called in and said I had an Irish phrase to contribute to Brian’s program, the screener –who, as it turned out, happened to be Irish– asked me what it was. When I told her “morr-ya” she responded, “Oh, I’d completely forgotten about that. My mother uses it all the time.”
[A postscript: On the same mistranslation theme, I remembered two lovely, funny examples from years ago. One involved the curious failure of the famous Chevy Nova to catch on in Latin America –as was later explained, the phrase “no va” in Spanish means “it doesn’t go”.
The second one, which also involves Coca Cola, is an alltime favorite of mine. The catchy phrase, “Come alive with a Coke” was used to sell Coke in the Phillipines. Employed successfully for years
in the English-speaking soda-swilling nations of the world, it seemed to fizzle somewhat in Manila. It turned out that the translator had struggled mightily to find the local equivalent of “Come alive…” before settling on the rather ghoulish “Come out of the Grave with Coca Cola”.]