Found in Translation: The Funny Side of Language Mishaps

Lost in Translation Woman with Computer

Languages can be a minefield. It’s hard enough mastering one, let alone telling stories in a different tongue. Obviously translators don’t always get it right and there are so many things that can go wrong with foreign languages…or right, if you love a laugh.

I once poked my book title, Requiem for Immortals, into a translation app, flipped it to German and back to English a few times to amuse myself, and it eventually came out as Requiem for Sorcerers.  How very Harry Potter. Not surprisingly, my professionally translated book has an entirely different title in Germany, Requiem mit tödlicher Partitur (Requiem with a Deadly Score). It sounds way less “You’re a wizard, Natalya.”

Why good translation matters

It may not seem such a big deal to some people, but translations in books especially, really matter. Doing it right and doing it well is not just important, it’s essential. It can change something from art to substandard, or from shocking to good. Or in some cases, something beautiful to something oddly mechanical.
And when you translate badly, perhaps cheating using a free online service, it’s always evident. You have nowhere to hide. No, seriously. It’s so, so obvious.

Getting it so bad it’s funny

A fine example of dodgy DIY translating came five years ago when a would-be thief hacked my eBay account and started trying to buy hi-tech stuff on German eBay in my name. The first clue it was happening came when one smart German seller decided it was weird that a random Aussie woman was buying all his gear in bulk. So he messaged me something in German.

I put his message through Google Translate. Oh, right, okay, he wanted to know did I really mean to buy six of his laptops when I was in Australia?

Wait, what?

The hell?

I frantically tapped into Google Translate that I’d been hacked by some lowlife (the exact furious verbiage escapes me now), then converted it to German, and sent him that translated message.

Five long minutes went by, involving, I assume, some German guy helpless on the floor with laughter, before he replied in perfect English (how do so many Germans know perfect English, anyway?): “Did you intend to write words that mean, ‘An unknown bastard of low merit pretends to be my body without consequence?”

Um. Yeah? I kind of did. Much hilarity between us ensued before eBay froze my account to examine several suspicious transactions, and, alas, I didn’t get to farewell my new best Kumpel.

Given I don’t pretend to be a pro at translations, I’m totally allowed to be a funny dork when I give it a go. That doesn’t excuse actual translation experts, though, allegedly trained in the fine art of foreign tongues, for giving us unintentional hilarity.

When pros mess with TV and film

When I asked my Facebook followers to share any translating mishaps they’ve seen in writing and entertainment from around the world, the replies came in thick and fast. While I cannot verify their accuracy, for amusement sake I hope they’re all true. Here is a selection of them:

* Die Hard: With a Vengeance is called Die Hard – Mega Hard in Denmark.

* In France, when they made the French version of The Shawshank Redemption, they called it The Escapees, which spoiled the end.

* Die Hard was translated as Crystal Hell in Italian.

* The ‘90s TV series Saved by the Bell was California High School – Stressful Break And First Love in German.

* In Italy, Disney’s classic The Parent Trap was translated as The Cowboy with the Bride’s Veil.

Not all translations were accidentally hilarious. Some were deliberately sly. On a CSI episode, Jim Brass says in English: “Nothing sounds good in German.” In the German version he says: “The Germans wrote everything.”

That’s the thing with translations, in books, signs, titles, songs, or anything, really, they’re only as good as the translator. A translator has so much power to correct, tweak, or create new meanings, as well as inject their own sensibilities into what we read.

Art or awful: The supreme power of translators

An example of this power lies in the different translations from Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan. The Observer’s Rachel Cook notes, that the original translation from the French by Irene Ash begins, “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness”.

In the Heather Lloyd translation of the same passage, it reads, “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’.”

Chalk and cheese takes. Or should that be craie et le fromage?

Well-executed translations really are like fine fromage. Something to be savored and appreciated, over and again. And bad translations are like chewing on craie. One taste and you’re done. Translators easily make or break their art.

Finding the right translation

So what’s the bottom line? If you’re buying a translated book, or you’re an author getting one translated, you want to ensure you’re getting the good stuff, courtesy of a publishing house with foreign-publishing credentials, or a highly qualified translation expert. Not something Google Translate thinks is close enough. Because while all those online robo-translators and the prolific cheap-as-chips translation services are good for a laugh, they’re not good for much else.

Well, except for getting a German businessman to cancel your unauthorized order for six laptops. And for that I am profoundly grateful.

Copyright picture above: Depositphotos/zeffss

Lee Winter is an award-winning veteran newspaper journalist who has covered courts, crime, news, features and humor writing. Now a full-time author and part-time editor, Lee is also a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist and a double Golden Crown Literary Award winner. She has just published Under Your Skin with Ylva.



July 2018 is Breaking the Language Barrier month at Ylva, and we’re celebrating all our novels that have been translated into a different language. Find out more about luscious ladies who love the ladies, no matter what language they’re speaking. To check out which of our books have lesbians around the world excited, click here:

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About the Author : Lee Winter


  1. AJ Smith July 10, 2018 at 19:13 - Reply

    I’ve always been in awe of Jay Rubin for his English versions of Haruki Murakami’s work, it’s far more than mere translation to re(create) something so beautiful and deeply metaphorical.

    I have Emily Wilson’s version of The Odyssey in my to be read pile, it’s the first time a woman has published an English translation and it sounds very interesting and potentially a very different take compared to the 1946 EV Rieu Penguin Classic we did in school.

    • Cheyenne Blue July 10, 2018 at 22:08 - Reply

      Ahhh AJ, I, too, was thinking of the Murakami translations when I read Lee’s article. I am in awe of how a translator can stick close, yet produce something so incredible without it sounding like a technical manual.

  2. Cristina July 19, 2018 at 17:38 - Reply

    For sure, the right translation makes all the difference. Free automated translations are solid for getting a general idea of what a word or phrase in a different language means, and that’s where the line’s drawn.

    So… when are you jumping on writing that Requiem for Sorcerers book? lol

    • Lee Winter July 23, 2018 at 10:34 - Reply

      Ha! Yes Cristina, very true. And I think the :”You’re A Wizard, Natalya” Requiem sequel may have to wait until the world’s ready for lethal assassins with glowy magic. 🙂

  3. […] After the translator does the translating, an editor comes in to smooth it all out, and then there’s the copy editor who looks for structural issues and so on. It takes a team and readers are very aware of what a good translation is and what not. […]

  4. Elena February 3, 2020 at 17:46 - Reply

    Found my way to this post about translations, it was very cool to read about the importance and positive impact of good translations, written by a writer. Unfortunately, most folks only remember translations when they’re crap 😀 Which sort of makes sense, as the primary job of a translator is not to be seen nor heard, so that readers hear the voice of the author.

    Good translation for fiction –of any kind, but the most literary works as given in example, or most niche content, are the real challenges — is as complex as rocket science, so to speak, no joke. That’s why the best translations ever were generally produced by other writers with excellent command of their native language — it’s a common misconception that great command of a second language is all it takes — biggest fake news ever 😀

    It’s ridiculous how challenging it can be to “port” a concept as simple and as easily understood in English as “ice queen” to some other language. For some, literal may do, or there’ll be an equally fitting idiom, but for most it won’t. For some of these other languages, translators need to “build a concept” in their native language so that all other natives get it without having to think about what it means. Wouldn’t believe some of the translation forums on idioms, they are incredible.

    Sorry about long comment, could talk for hours about this obscure but fascinating profession 🙂

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