The perils of bad translation

(I really ought to have a classics-related icon for posts like this. Any suggestions from the audience?)

There’s a scene in Diana Wynne Jones’ novel A Tale of Time City wherein Vivian, who is an ordinary girl from WWII England, is assigned to translate a text written in the “universal symbols” of Time City. She does an entertainingly bad job of it, and gets mocked by her tutor.

I probably wasn’t supposed to take that as inspiration, was I?

See, years ago, when kurayami_hime and I were taking Latin in high school, we were given Catullus 3 to translate, along with a vocabulary list to look up before we began. The first word on that list was passer, which, according to my dictionary, meant “sparrow” (the poem being a mock-eulogy for his girlfriend’s dead bird) . . . and also “flounder.”

Inspired by this, and also by the number of our classmates who had mis-translated a line of Ovid’s about “small things capture the minds of young girls” as “girls like to capture small animals” (they mistook anima for animal), kurayami_hime and I produced the following travesty, which our Latin teacher promptly stole, posted on the board, and only gave us photocopies of several years later; the original remains in her possession.

Wear mourning clothes, oh highest toss of the dice and greedy ones,
and how many there are of men who are endowed like Venus: my girl has killed her fish,
that fish, the crime of my girl, which loved her more than her flower buds —
for there was honey for her and the mother knew herself so well that she was a girl,
neither that one moving himself from the center, but running around how this how that,
to the sun of the house and chirping: which now plows again through Tenebricus,
where waves decline as they return there, and you are a bad apple, evil pigs of low birth,
where everyone loves war, so war to me seems like a fish.
O apple fact! O evil fish! Now you sing an opera so that my girl is crying
and swollen because there is rhubarb in her eyes.


And but so anyway, I read that to some people last night, and was told I should post it here for the entertainment of others. Thus I give it to you. My apologies to all the Latinists who are now bleeding from the eyeballs.

0 Responses to “The perils of bad translation”

  1. desperance

    Are you familiar with Housman’s Fragment?

    • Marie Brennan


      Oh, wow. No, I was not, but that is amazing. What’s the story behind it?

      • desperance

        Housman is really only remembered these days for “A Shropshire Lad”, but he was the pre-eminent classical scholar of his day. After Oxford he went back to teach at his old school for a bit, and an earlier version of this was published in the school magazine. So he wrote it in his early twenties, and liked it enough to think it worth revising later. It’s not the only evidence that he had a sense of humour, but it is the most abiding.

        (Also, I love the internet. I would have been eighteen or nineteen when I first encountered this, when a friend read it to me from an out-of-print collection of humorous verse. Took me fifteen years or so to track down a copy of my own. This afternoon? Four words typed into Google, and there it is…)

        • Marie Brennan

          I find “Terence, this is stupid stuff” to be quite humourous. πŸ™‚ I think it’s the only Housman we read in school, though.

          • desperance

            Oh, aye: “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink/For fellows whom it hurts to think.” But the wit gets buried under the morbid sentimentality, and people laugh at him instead of with him. “What, still alive at twenty-two/A fine upstanding lad like you?” etc…

          • Marie Brennan

            I think I technically “read” the rest of A Shropshire Lad while hunting titles for With Fate Conspire, but I don’t think that really counts. Everything I was reading for that purpose went in one eyeball and out the other.

    • wshaffer

      Why should I mention Io? Why indeed?/I have no notion why.

      I still have a tattered photocopy of that from when I studied Greek in college. We quoted from it constantly, usually when one of us produced a particularly inept bit of translation.

  2. Marie Brennan

    Thankee, thankee kindly. πŸ™‚

  3. aishabintjamil

    Along these lines, I thought you might find this little anecdote amusing. Our local SCA group has a fine cooks guild, which I attended one afternoon a couple of years ago, mostly acting as a chauffeur for my wife, who is highly dubious of driving in Dorchester.

    One lady brought a recipe she was redacting based on a description of the preparation of a cheese dish mentioned in one of Virgil’s Ecologues. It was a cheese and herb concoction, apparently intended to be served on bread. The result of following the description was a soft ball of cheese spread. She had brought along the original Latin, and it was noted that it contained the phrase “e pluribus unum” in the context of mixing all the ingredients together. This lead in very short order to the English version of the recipe being dubbed the “Patriotic Cheese Ball”.

    • aedifica

      Hee! I have to show my sister this comment.

    • Marie Brennan

      Ahahaha. And now that’s going to go in my head alongside the use pop culture has made of Horace’s carpe diem line (he was trying to convince a girl to sleep with him). I’m going to pretend one of our founding fathers actually got that line from what ammounts to a cookbook. πŸ˜€

  4. aedifica

    Oh, that’s wonderful! My Latin is rusty enough these days that I read that flipping back and forth between your translation, the original, and a, shall we say different English translation, and now I too have tears in my eyes from laughing.

    • Marie Brennan

      We mostly built it by taking a) obscure meanings, b) things near it in the dictionary, or c) other similar words that might theoretically be mistaken for the actual word in the poem. And, if memory serves, a willful ignorance of grammar for glue. πŸ™‚

  5. livejournal

    Must pass this on

    User referenced to your post from Must pass this on saying: […] When translations go bad […]

  6. esotaria

    My eyeballs bleed with laughter. “O apple fact! O evil fish!” I want that on my tombstone.

  7. Marie Brennan

    Hah! No, I missed that one. Fabulous!

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