O, Canada! Thy brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers, but thy land is rife with the strife of struggling bi-linguists who are at the short end of jokes aplenty!
Canada is bi-lingual at the federal level. That means two languages hold the coveted position of being the country’s official tongues as administered by the federal government. Finland is the only other developed nation with a similar status – Finnish and Swedish being the two national languages.
In addition to having this special status, Canada also has the privilege of being home to one of the most culturally diverse demography profiles in the world, with only 32 per cent of the population being of ethnic origin.
As fascinating a place as Canada is (I was considering moving there some many years ago and I know that lovely Catherine Christaki and Christos Floros from Lingua Greca are still dreaming of emigrating there), for the purpose of this article we shall restrict ourselves to just a couple of somewhat-oft-repeated-but-nonetheless-funny-every-time-you-hear-them tales of linguistic ludicrousness that are wont to happen when two languages – even distantly related ones – come head to head in a fight for supremacy. We are not suggesting unilingualism or advocating a preference for one language over the other – especially that I speak both of them; we are merely pointing out the fact that even in a country where two languages are “official”, one of them gets…shall we say, left to fend for itself?
The first one that must be showcased is a classic that could once be found at Niagara Falls (on the Ontario side, of course): Caution – Slippery Surfaces When Wet. That kind of sign begs the question: So where does Slippery go and submerge himself when he’s dry? In the Niagara River, one might assume.
How about this one? When Big John products were introduced by Hunt-Wesson, Inc. in French Canada (Québec alone is officially a unilingual province, with French being the official language), they were launched as Gros Jos. While this may look okay at first glance, those who know the local slang will snigger at the translation: big breasts. Even a literal translation would make it “Fat John” – not much better for a food brand.
Why Linguistic Bloopers?
Everybody’s got a stash of photos of funny signs around the world, and people are usually quite free about sharing it. But the problem goes much deeper than just unintended errors in translation: the problem is that people take translation too lightly. In all probability, the majority of these signs were translated by a self-proclaimed bi-linguist or by computer software. This can be a very dangerous thing. Consider this sign in a hotel in China: “Your bed has been made in accordance with local tradition. If you have any other ideas please ring for the chambermaid. Please take advantage of her. She will be very pleased to squash your shirts, blouses and underwear. If asked, she will also squeeze your trousers.” Imagine the consequences if one actually did do what the sign suggested! Before you start Googling Chinese Law for the punishment meted out for sexual harassment, think about what would happen if the translator of that sign worked for the United Nations. We would be constantly on the brink of World War III.
Translation bloopers, however, are not just reserved for interlingual scenarios. Even within the same language, a person who does not speak it very well can often be confused by signs. The famous “Dogs must be carried on escalators” sign that has people scrambling to find a dog just to get to the upper level is a mind-numbing example of this.
Everywhere you travel to in this small world, you can find such gems. The underlying message is clear: get a translator. If you are about to put up a sign that hundreds or thousands of people will be looking at every day, for God’s sake get a translator! It won’t cost you an arm and a leg to get a decent translation done, but it will save you the cost of utter shame and embarrassment – not to mention a complete loss of credibility.
In parting, we beg of you to do the right thing, and not be the “putter-upper” of signs such as this: “This is a family hotel, so children are very welcome. We of course are always pleased to accept adultery.” Get a translator!