Bite the Wax Tadpole: The Risky Business of Translation

Cross-posted from LiveJournal.

Before you jump down my throat with both feet, let me assure you that I’m fully aware Coca-Cola™ never used the title of this essay as the name of their product in China. That little legend arose as eager shopkeepers devised phonetic representations for a new product without regard to meaning, and before Coke™ had settled on an official translation. “Bite the Wax Tadpole” was only one of many such renderings that arose.

Having disposed of that matter, translators and interpreters walk a fine line.

A success can mean acclaim and bringing pleasure to thousands of people, in the case of a well-received literary translation, such as Howard Scott’s translation of The Euguelion.

A mis-step can result in anything from simple pwnage to an international incident.

For no reason other than feeling contrary today, I thought I’d pull together some of the more notable failures in the world of translation – some traditional, others inspired by the ease of access to quick (and very often, dirty, in the classical sense) translation via the web.

First, the urban legend category.

  • The Chevrolet Nova sold quite well in its target markets, Mexico and Venezuela, despite being able to wring the meaning “doesn’t run” (no va) out of the name.
  • American Airlines never had a “Fly in Leather” campaign, which reputedly was translated to “vuela en cuero”, which is only one letter away from “fly naked” (en cueros).
  • I suspect that most of the lists of supposed translation bloopers from hotels and shops around the world have some basis in fact, but the large body of them are unverifiable, and these are forwarded with so many reputed sources that they have long since passed into the realm of probable fiction. A couple of classics: “The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. To get it done, turn her on.” “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”

Some real examples


I love this one.

The Chinese characters say “Restaurant”, but what they really wanted to call it is unknown. Whoever was assigned to do the translation turned to an online translator which failed, and served up what you see here. Not knowing English, the translator blithely copied what he or she assumed meant “Garden of Delights” or whatever, and the world was given something else to laugh at.

The Chinese, however, are not the only ones to suffer from this syndrome


The picture is self-explanatory. Once again, some bureaucrat assumed that what showed up in his or her inbox was the requested translation, and having no knowledge whatever of Welsh, this was the result. This sign, however, was quickly removed.

Alas, the sword has two edges. Have a look at a cartoon published a year ago by a dear friend of mine – with no disrespect intended!:


Instead of an anatomical impossibility, what the irate Kuchiku is screaming at her monitor is “Information Not Found!”; as the artist couldn’t read Chinese, she assumed that her Google Translate search was returning an actual value rather than an error message. A more detailed writeup of this particular incident is here.

Here’s an unsettling one, found recently at


By the sacred skull of Mogg’s grandmother, turn it off!

Before even perusing the comments at that entry, I began following the logic that led to this strange error. Surprisingly, it’s not as counter-intuitive as you might suppose, given the complexities of the Chinese language.

“Nightlight” is correctly translated as 夜灯:

夜 ye4 “night”
灯 deng1 “light”

Some translations add 小 xiao3 “small”.

I figured the other switch, beginning as it did with 天 tian1 “heavenly”, was supposed to be the overhead light, and it turns out I was correct. The Chinese word for “ceiling” is 天花板, or “overhead flower plank”.

天 tian1 Heavenly (by extension, overhead)
花 hua1 Flower
板 ban3 Plank

Now, the word for “lantern” is a delightful 花灯 “flower light”, which makes perfect sense.

花 hua1 flower
灯 deng1 light

Thus by extension, a ceiling light, or overhead light, becomes 天花灯 “overhead lantern”

Ceiling (overhead) light
天 tian1 heavenly, above, overhead
花 hua1 flower
灯 deng1 light

The problem arose because for some unknown reason, “Smallpox” was designated as 天花 or “heavenly flower”

天 tian1 heavenly
花 hua1 flower

From here it’s easy to see how someone using either an online translator or even a regular dictionary, and without a good knowledge of english, could parse the word incorrectly and come up with “Smallpox light”

The net is full of such delights:

Endless other examples can be seen at

Translation and interpretation are true art forms. While the modern tools available to us have their use, there is no danger that the language professionals who dedicate a great deal of time to receiving the necessary education and experience for their craft will be out of a job any time soon – at least not as long as there are those who care about getting it right.

As for me, I don’t think I’ll be staying at the smallpox hotel anytime soon.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

7 responses to “Bite the Wax Tadpole: The Risky Business of Translation

  1. Pingback: So let it be written! | Playing in the World Game

  2. 天花 is easily explained as euphemism, giving something unpleasant an innocuous name. The smallpox lesions seen as flowers bestowed by Heaven…

  3. Pingback: How to Fit-up Your Computer (aka Translation Troubles) | Playing in the World Game

  4. Pingback: Make a Translator Mad in Four Words | Playing in the World Game

  5. Pingback: You want to do *what* to that duck? | Playing in the World Game

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