Dishwashers and double meanings

February 16, 2024 by Alison Tunley

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This blog previously described the pleasure a translator can find in perusing multilingual instructions for a new domestic appliance, which often feature some entertainingly dismal translations. Having said that, the consequences of attempting to dodge translation difficulties by providing an illustration-only user manual suggest manufacturers are best advised to stick with providing written  instructions even if that incurs an additional cost. At any rate, the recent sudden demise of our dishwasher (apparently after being chewed beyond repair by a mouse) meant the arrival of a full set of translated instructions for the new machine. Even better, the replacement was a Bosch appliance, so the source content would have been written in German, the language I know from my everyday translation work. I settled down with a mug of tea and a couple of biscuits to enjoy the user guide. So imagine my surprise — and a certain amount of disappointment — as page after page was presented in pretty much impeccable English.

Hats off to the manufacturer, I scoured the text for the usual signs of sub-par translation and tell-tale traces of the original language, but there was virtually nothing even a picky proofreader could pounce on. The sole translation-related entertainment for my afternoon tea break came late on in the user guide, where there was a temporary lapse into Germanified English with the advice: “It is recommended adding less detergent to the detergent dispenser than for a full machine load.” Grim garbled syntax and unnatural phrasing. But slim pickings in terms of my hoped for round-up of translation bloopers. I scoured the text again and had a brief chuckle at the unfortunate double meaning of “may” (as in “have the potential to” versus “are permitted to”) in “Children may put packaging material over their heads or wrap themselves up in it and suffocate”.

At this point, I had to admit defeat and instead turned to a little list I’d been keeping of other unfortunate ambiguous turns of phrase. And that’s how I’ll round up this week’s blog. First, we have the delightfully macabre potential of misinterpreting a sign next to a body of water informing people:


With thanks to Jonathan Brown on X/Twitter for flagging that up as an entertaining example for a statutory interpretation class, although clearly you don’t need to be a lawyer to enjoy the semantic possibilities thrown up here. And finally, since lawyers obviously have an eye for this kind of linguistic slip-up, we have an absolute gem from Scott Wortley citing a US statute containing the edict: “No-one shall carry any dangerous weapon upon the public highway except for the purpose of killing a noxious animal or a policemen in the execution of his duty.”


Image: Unsplash

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