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Lost in Translation

Recently I went to a local shop to buy some mosquito burn them slowly and they are supposed to keep away mosquitoes.  Our compound is terrible with mosquitoes (so is our house), especially since this is a good rainy season.  I bought these for our guard to burn at night to help keep the mosquitoes away from him.  I also bought him insect repellent to put on and gave him a pair of John's socks to wear.  In spite of our best efforts, today he has malaria, but I digress.
It's the translation on the box of coils that I thought was pretty funny.  It was obviously translated from one language (which I shall not name) into English using something like Google Translate.  It says:

Lengen micro-smoke mosquito-repellent incense
This product is made of high-grade raw materials, which is used of the latest international technology and advanced spray-paint technology.  (Hmmmm, not sure how spray-paint fits in here.)  No harm to human body and livestock.  It is not easier moisture absorption and mildew but easier to open.  (Huh?)  It is break-resistant, pull-resistant, pleasant fragrance lighting, non-pollution, environmentally friendly products, safe to use.  (Got all that?)  The aged and children are even more suitable to use the mosquito-repellent incense.  (But everybody between 18 and 60 better be careful!) ... Be cautions of safety, firepreventing.  Do not use it near open flames of other heat sources.  Products placed on ventilation shady and cool place, avoid children play.

Well, I'm laughing because I stand guilty as charged of using Google Translate when writing letters in French.  I find it a helpful place to start, then I read over because sometimes I catch things that even I know are wrong or awkward.  But, really, when it comes right down to it, my letters probably read a lot like the back of the mosquito coil box!  I'm sure my French readers have a good laugh sometimes!

Recently somebody sent me something in French and I thought I understood it, but I decided to run it through Google Translate to make sure I was completely understanding.  I had gotten the meaning, but I had to laugh when instead of saying, "Please see Moses in his office", it said, "Please look at Moses in his office."  Look and see are similar and sometimes can be used interchangeably, but I don't think he'd be very happy if everybody came in his office to stare at him!

And speaking of "to see"....think of how many ways we use that phrase or word.  I see something means you looked at it.  To see somebody about something means that you go and talk to them.  But I'm seeing somebody means you are dating them.  And Oh! I see! means you understood it.

We have several missionaries working as translators here in our field of ministry.  All day long they examine original Hebrew and Greek texts and try to determine the exact meaning of the word.  Then when they understand the word or phrase, they have to make it understandable in the local language.  Using the word "to see", for example....The translator has determined that Jesus saw the crowds means he looked at them and saw them with his eyes.  But if he uses a phrase in the local language that translates as Jesus was seeing the crowds, people might get the idea that Jesus was dating them.

As you can see, our translators don't just use Google Translate.  They can't just make a close guess and call it a day.  They spend long arduous hours determining the real meaning, finding the best word in the local language, writing it down, then testing it to see if people understand.  Then it's back to the drawing board for more revising.  I really admire those who spend their days making sure God's Word is translated in an excellent manner so that people can understand in their own language.

The purpose of my blog is to tell about my daily life, not to get involved in controversial subjects.  But while thinking of translation, I just want to share this link to an article concerning one of the controversies in translation right now.  I think it is one of the best articles I've read on the subject.  It's by John Piper and it's called John's Solution.


Linda Watt said…
I wish the Son of God debate was so easily resolved. Unfortunately it's not as simple as what Piper makes it out to be. I have read many good articles about it that were pretty easy to understand.

Bible translation is not an easy task and requires a lot of training to do it well. Just ask any of our translators and they will tell you.
They translate from the original texts, not from English or French, they have to know the local language well, not just three or four years in the language and then they have mother tongue translators to make sure that what they are translating is communicating accurately. Wow! That is a huge task. I would hate it if any of our Bible translations sounded like your mosquito coil translation! But sometimes we think we are communicating and sometimes what we communicate is not what we intended.

I use Google translate to give me a rough draft, but I would never use it for an official French document! I would go to a native French speaker who was an expert in that area.
Jonathan Moore said…
Hi Nancy. Just thought I'd mention that the link for John Piper's article only gives the first couple of paragraphs, unless you are a subscriber to World Magazine. The original article, however, is on John Piper's website, Desiring God. The link to the article is


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