Tom and Jerry: Defenders of All Things Right and Good

Monday, July 21, 2008

I’ve Heard Their “Unhandled Exception Chow Mien” Is Very Good


I'm not sure what Chinese words this restaurateur fed to the translation software used to generate the giant sign hanging over the entrance, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't: TRANSLATE SERVER ERROR. Ah, the special problems of translations into other languages.

Of course, English is a particularly tricky language, and there have been numerous reported instances of signs in other countries where the message ended up being not quite was intended. Here are a few examples from a pretty good list:

In a Nairobi restaurant:
CUSTOMERS WHO FIND OUR WAITRESSES RUDE OUGHT TO SEE THE MANAGER.

In a Bangkok temple:
IT IS FORBIDDEN TO ENTER A WOMAN EVEN A FOREIGNER IF DRESSED AS A MAN.

On the menu in a Swiss restaurant:
OUR WINES LEAVE YOU NOTHING TO HOPE FOR.

In a Copenhagen airline ticket office:
WE TAKE YOUR BAGS AND SEND THEM IN ALL DIRECTIONS.

From a brochure of a car rental firm in Tokyo:
WHEN PASSENGER OF FOOT HEAVE IN SIGHT, TOOTLE THE HORN. TRUMPET HIM MELODIOUSLY AT FIRST, BUT IF HE STILL OBSTACLES YOUR PASSAGE THEN TOOTLE HIM WITH VIGOR.


Here are a couple that the above list doesn’t contain, but are somewhat noteworthy:

Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong was an extremely popular arcade game released by Nintendo in 1981, and it achieved a couple of milestones: it was Nintendo’s breakout hit in America, and it was the first video game to feature a plot.

The eponymous Donkey Kong is the game's de facto villain. He is the pet of a carpenter named Jumpman (a name chosen for its similarity to "Walkman" and "Pac-Man"; the character was later renamed Mario, and made a plumber, not a carpenter). The carpenter mistreats the ape, so Donkey Kong escapes and kidnaps Jumpman/Mario's girlfriend, originally known as the Lady, but later named Pauline. The player must take the role of Jumpman/Mario and rescue the girl.

The game opens with a gorilla climbing a pair of ladders to the top of a construction site. He sets the Lady/Pauline down and stamps his feet, causing the steel beams to change shape. He then moves to his final perch and sneers. This brief animation sets the scene and adds background to the gameplay, a first for video games. Upon reaching the end of the stage, another cut scene begins. A heart appears between Jumpman/Mario and the Lady/Pauline, but Donkey Kong grabs the woman and climbs higher, causing the heart to break. The narrative concludes when Jumpman/Mario reaches the end of the final stage. He and the Lady/Pauline are reunited, and a short intermission plays. The game then starts over at a higher level of difficulty.

But where did the name "Donkey Kong" come from? According to the game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, the game was originally called "Dumb Monkey" (in Japanese), but Nintendo wanted to target the North American market, so an English title was necessary. "Kong" was common Japanese slang for "gorilla", and he claims he was told that "Donkey" meant stupid and/or stubborn. Hence, “Donkey Kong”.

"All Your Base Are Belong To Us"

The phrase stems from a 1991 adaptation of Toaplan's "Zero Wing" shoot-'em-up arcade game for the Sega Genesis game console. In the Sega version, to expand on the game's plot, an introductory cut scene was added to the game. Due to the rush to release the game in European and North American markets, this introductory scene was translated to English from Japanese rather hastily - and therefore, poorly - resulting in dialogue such as "Somebody set up us the bomb", "All your base are belong to us", and "You have no chance to survive make your time." The introduction does not appear in the arcade version.


Let us not forget, though, that American companies trying to introduce products in non-English speaking countries have had their problems, too. Here’s my personal favorite:

Coca-Cola in China

When Coca-Cola first entered the Chinese market in 1928, it had no official representation of its name in Mandarin. It needed to find four Chinese characters whose pronunciations approximated the sounds "ko-ka-ko-la" without producing a nonsensical or adverse meaning when strung together as a written phrase (Written Chinese employs about 40,000 different characters, of which about 200 are pronounced with sounds that could be used in forming the name "ko-ka-ko-la"). While Coca-Cola was searching for a satisfactory combination of symbols to represent their name, Chinese shopkeepers created signs that combined characters whose pronunciations formed the string "ko-ka-ko-la", but they did so with no regard for the meanings of the written phrases they formed in doing so. The character for wax, pronounced "la," was used in many of these signs, resulting in strings that sounded like "ko-ka-ko-la" when pronounced but conveyed nonsensical meanings such as "female horse fastened with wax," "wax-flattened mare," or "bite the wax tadpole" when read.

Coca-Cola had to avoid using many of the 200 symbols available for forming "ko-ka-ko-la" because of their meanings, including all of the characters pronounced "la". They compromised by opting for the character lê, meaning "joy," and approximately pronounced as "ler." The final transliteration of "Coca-Cola" was "K’o Kou K’o Lê", translated as "to allow the mouth to be able to rejoice," but it acceptably represented the concept of "something palatable from which one receives pleasure". It was the real thing, with no wax tadpoles or female horses, and Coca-Cola registered it as its Chinese trademark in 1928.


I shall now drive somewhere for lunch; if traffic is bad, I may have to tootle someone with vigor.

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