Writer and broadcaster Adam Gopnik muses in a New Yorker article about the pitfalls of speaking in a language other than your own:
“Once, in a restaurant in Italy with my family … I thought I had, very suavely, ordered for dessert fragoline—those lovely little wild strawberries. Instead, I seem to have asked for fagiolini—green beans. The waiter ceremoniously brought me a plate of green beans with my coffee, along with the flan and the gelato for the kids.”
There are always perils of writing in a different language as evidenced by signs in hotels, restaurants and other public places. Often we know what these messages mean, but can’t help laughing at the surreal image they conjure up as with the Copenhagen airline ticket office sign – We take your bags and send them in all directions or the notice in an Italian cemetery – Persons are prohibited from picking flowers from any but their own graves. But these aren’t strictly problems of translation, more of the kind of imprecise meaning which are just as likely to happen using your own language.
The sign above is striving to get at the real meaning, and conjures up an ethereal, rather wistful picture. Unlike the following from the brochure of a Tokyo car rental firm which has a weird clarity: When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor. Or this alarming item on a Polish menu: Salad a firm’s own make; limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten in the country people’s fashion. The image of a roasted duck let loose sounds a bit nightmarish.
But that all pales into insignificance when we consider English as she is Spoke Pedro Carolino’s 1850s contribution to the genre. He had the best of intentions, aiming to write a phrasebook to help Portuguese students to come to grips with the English language.
Quite why he took this on isn’t clear. He knew very little English himself, and had no Portuguese–English dictionary to hand. But making the best of things he first consulted a Portuguese–French phrasebook and completed the translation process with the help of a French–English dictionary. The reliability of both those sources may have been a little shaky, but the end result has a bizarre magnificence.
To get the full flavour you’ll need to find a copy of this classic which was first published in England in 1884. There are plenty of editions on Amazon the most recent being from November 2018. Alternatively it’s available at no cost from Gutenburg.org in various downloadable digital editions.
I’ve only got space for a few examples of Carolino’s valiant attempts to pass on the rudiments of the English Language. He begins by confidently listing a large number of Familiar Phrases such as ‘He spit in my coat’, ‘He burns one’s self the brains’ , ‘I take a broth all morning’ and ‘ It must never to laugh of the unhappies’.
Then we have a section of sample dialogues you might use in everyday situations, as here with a watchmaker:
I bring you a watch that want to be ordered. I had the misfortune to leave fall down the instant where I did mounted, it must to put again a glass. I want not a pendulum? I have them here some very good. Don't you live me her proof againts? I shall not accept that this condition.
or a furniture tradesman
It seems no me new. Pardon me, it comes workman's hands. Which hightness want you its? I want almost four feet six thumbs wide's, over seven of long.
A collection of sometimes mystifying anecdotes follows including this one:
‘Plato walking one’s self a day to the field with some of their friends. They were to see him Diogenes who was in to water untill the chin. The superficies of the water was snowed, for the reserve of the hole that Diogenes was made. “Don’t look it more told them Plato, and he shall get out soon.”‘
The book comes to an end with a list of supposedly well-known Idiotisms and Proverbs: ‘Nothing some money, nothing of Swiss’, ‘He has a good beak’, ‘Take out the live coals with the hand of the cat’, ‘ To craunch the marmoset,’ and thankfully one which is just about recognisable: ‘The stone as roll not heap up not foam’.
Anyway as Carolino himself puts it ‘It must never to laugh of the unhappies’ or as Frankie Howerd used to say. ‘It’s wicked to mock the afflicted’. Happy marmoset craunching!