Trouble in tongue

by Tony Deyal
Barbados Nation
May 22, 1999

The ancient Chinese symbol for trouble is several women under one roof.

Organisers of the Miss Universe pageant are beginning to appreciate the wisdom of the Chinese as they head towards the big day, May 26.

The major problem when you gather so many people from so many countries in one place is communication. When President John Kennedy visited the Berlin Wall in 1963 and sought with impassioned oratory to arouse the conscience of the world, he said in German, “Ich bin ein Berliner.“ He wanted to say, “I am a Berliner.” However, since in German words for nationalities are not preceded by articles, what he said was, “I am a jelly doughnut.”

Even among people from one region like the Caribbean there are problems.

One morning in Jamaica the waiter at the hotel where I was staying told me that the breakfast special was “Calalloo.” I was surprised since in Trinidad, calalloo is a thick soup made from a specific variety of spinach and other ingredients, sometimes including crabmeat. I could not evisage soup at that time in the morning and joked with the waiter that coffee was my “wake-up” beverage of choice. It was then he explained that in Jamaica, “calalloo” is not a soup but is a fried combination of spinach and salted fish, what we in Trinidad call simply "spinach" or the East Indian equivalent, "bhagee". I discovered that what we call "calalloo", Jamaicans call “pepper-pot.” However, that is not the same as what Guyanese call “pepper-pot.” I had my last laugh on the subject when, under the same roof where the contestants are staying, the Holiday Inn in Trinidad, a Jamaican colleague of mine saw “calalloo” on the menu and without waiting ordered it for breakfast.

Even the Chinese, in spite of their ancient wisdom, have problems with language, particularly the English language. The advertising slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” was translated into Chinese as, “Pepsi brings back your dead ancestors.” Pepsi’s competitor, Coca-Cola, initially fared no better in trying to break into the huge Chinese market. The name Coca-Cola in China was first rendered as “ke-kou-ke-la.” Unfortunately, the company did not discover until after thousands of signs had been printed that, depending on the dialect, the phrase means “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax.” Coke then researched 40 000 Chinese characters and found a close phonetic equivalent, “ko-kou-ko-le”, which can be loosely translated as “happiness in the mouth.” Also in Chinese, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “eat your fingers off.”

There are other examples from the global advertising business. When General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova in South America, it found out that it wasn't selling any cars because “no va” means “it won't go.” The Ford company had a similar problem in Brazil when its “Pinto” flopped. The company found out that Pinto was Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals”.

The Parker Pen company, marketing a ballpoint pen in Mexico, wanted its ads to say, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, the company used the Spanish word “embarazar” thinking it meant “to embarrass.”

What they got was an ad that read, “It wont leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” An American “t-shirt” manufacturer in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope’s visit. Instead of the desired

“I Saw the Pope” in Spanish, the shirts boasted, “I Saw the Potato.”

Chicken-magnate, Frank Perdue”s slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” came out very different in Spanish when it appeared in billboards in Mexico. The ad featured a picture of Perdue with one of his

birds and a caption that explained, “It takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused.”

There are many other examples. When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the United States, with the beautiful baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa, companies routinely put

pictures on the label of what’s inside, since most people can’t read English. The Coors beer slogan, “Turn it loose” in Spanish was translated into, “Suffer from diarrohea.” Clairol introduced the “Mist Stick,” a curling- iron, into German only to find out that "mist" is slang for manure.

Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux, in the pre-Lewinsky days, used the following in an American campaign, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.“

Whatever vacuum cleaner the Holiday Inn uses, one hopes that its signs are better than those in some other hotels. In a Norwegian hotel a sign in the cocktail lounge read, “Ladies are requested not to have children in bar.”

The Information desk in a Czech hotel advertised, “Take one of our horse-driven city tours, we guarantee no miscarriages.” In Finland, a sign on a washroom faucet explaining the correct procedure for conserving water read, “To stop the drip, turn cock to right.” And in Bangkok, a hotel advertised donkey rides with the cryptic, and perhaps symbolic, slogan,

“Would you like to ride on your own ass?”

• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that even the English have problems with English. A sign in a hotel hosting a convention said, “For anyone who has children and doesn’t know it, there is a day care on the first floor.”

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples