the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Leap of logic

Someone I work with tells of a particularly excellent mistranslation, which he saw as a subtitle on a TV show aired in Israel.

"I think we have a winner for worst mistranslation of all time," he wrote. "A BBC comedy had 'a queue jumper' translated as... wait for it ...
'בעל סוודר חמוד.' I kid you not."

In English, this means that "a queue jumper" was translated into the Hebrew equivalent of "someone who has a cute jumper." And in American, it means that "a line cutter" was translated into the Hebrew equivalent of "someone who has a cute sweater" (hmm, that doesn't really translate so well, does it?).

Someone else suggested an alternative error as contender for the Worst Mistranslation (sub)title. This one rendered a "pink slip" an employee got from her boss as - you guessed it - "תחתונים ורודות," or "pink underwear."

I feel compelled to come out in favor of the Queue Jumper, and will proceed to wring all the fun out of it by overanalyzing just what makes it such a great mistake:

The surprise factor
While literal translations of idiomatic expressions can sometimes be funny, rarely are they unpredictable. Queue Jumper, on the other hand, delivers a laugh precisely because the leap is so large.

Some of the surprise of the punch line (fruit-and-rum queue?) has to do not just with the huge transformation of meaning, but also with the translation's switch in spoken emphasis. Even if a native English speaker heard one of the phrases divorced from context, he would be unlikely to confuse it with the other, at least in part because the emphasis is placed on the first word in the original phrase and the second in the mistranslation. In the words of an imaginary Brit: "She may be a bloody QUEUE jumper, but at least she has the decency to wear that wicked cute JUMPER!"

The distinctly British part of each phrase somehow gets flipped in the translation. I can just see the translator patting him/herself on the back, thinking, "Isn't it great that I know that 'jumper' means 'sweater' when the word is used on BBC shows?" - when actually the meaning of "jumper" as "one who jumps" is the right one in this case, and it's not "jumper" but "queue" that's the key British word in the original phrase.

To my ears at least, a "pink slip" - whether of the layoff or the lingerie variety - has no particular resonance for Israeli society. Cutting in line, on the other hand, most certainly does. Israelis have, to put it politely, a rather abstract interpretation of linearity - and I think this subtext adds to the humor. After all, is it any surprise that the phrase "queue jumper" failed to make it into the Hebrew intact when a real-life queue has yet to make it onto an Israeli bus intact?

All in all, this mistranslation is both so fantastically wrong and so culturally relevant that ultimately, it just feels right.


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