On the Language Log Mark Liberman reminds us, via Doonesbury and Monty Python, that translation is not without its pitfalls. The Hungarian phrase book sketch led me to take down from my bookshelf a real phrase book that contains such gems as ‘Were you a submarine captain?’ ‘No, I was a lieutenant on a battleship’, ‘Are you a naturalized Swiss?’ and ‘My sister is a Red Cross nurse.’ Then there is this: ‘Gentlemen, I have pleasure in sending you an invoice for one hundred pairs of best quality men’s shoes bought for your account and to be dispatched on the 22nd inst.’ This is the Teach Yourself Serbo-Croatian Phrase Book by Viola Ellis of 1961. I must say immediately that I have no reason to doubt that the translations are correct, but for the purpose of a family holiday in Yugoslavia, even in the early 60s with the Second World War as a living memory, its practical value was limited.
The best known phrase book for its errors is without doubt English as She is Spoke by José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino. It seems that they spoke no English and used a French-English dictionary to translate a Portuguese-French phrase book. Apart from its unintentional humour it has a great amount of pathetic charm, for it was written perfectly genuinely. The preface begins by describing it as ‘A choice of familiar dialogues, clean of gallicisms, and despoiled phrases, it was missing yet to studious portuguese and brazilian Youth,’ and ends with ‘We expect then, who the little book (for the care what we wrote him, and for her typographical correction) that may be worth the acceptance of the studious persons, and specially the Youth, at which we dedicate him particularly.’
Opening the book at random I find:
Parties of a town: The butchery, The cause-way, The sink, The obeli-sk, The low eating house, The prison, geol.
Perhaps the town in question was Ankh-Morpork.
Then there is this:
For to ride a horse
Here is a horse that have a bad looks. Give me another; I will not that. He not shall know to march, he is pursy, he is foundered. Don’t you are ashamed to give me up a jade as like? He is undshoed, he is with nails up; it want to lead to the farrier.
Your pistols are its loads?
No; I forgot to buy gun-powder and balls. Let us prick. Go us more fast never I was seen a so much bad beast; she will not nor to bring forward neither put back.
Strek him the bridle, hold him the reins sharters.
Pique stron gly, make to marsh him.
I have pricked him enough. But I can’t to make march him.
Go down, I shall make march.
Take care that he not give you a foot kick’s.
Then he kicks for that I look? Look here if I knew to tame hix.
All, sad to say, is sic. But Mark Twain’s view must stand:
Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully; … it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure.
It was written in serious, good faith and deep earnestness, by an honest and upright idiot who believed he knew something of the English language, and could impart his knowledge to others.
Perhaps the most famous strange phrase book sentence is: My postillion has been struck by lightning. It is said that this is an urban myth; no-one has found the origin of it and, contrary to what many people think, it does not come from English as She is Spoke. One thing that occurs to me, and I have not seen it mentioned elsewhere, is that George Borrow’s Lavengro famously has what may be the most abrupt end of any novel (except perhaps its sequel The Romany Rye). Apart from its abruptness, it is the end of an interpolated story of a man whose sudden appearance is told by Lavengro in the following fashion:
I was about a few yards only from the top of the ascent, when I beheld a blaze of light, from whence I knew not; the next moment there was a loud crash, and I appeared involved in a cloud of sulphurous smoke. “Lord have mercy upon us!” I heard a voice say, and methought I heard the plunging and struggling of horses. I had stopped short on hearing the crash, for I was half stunned; but I now hurried forward, and in a moment stood upon the plain. Here I was instantly aware of the cause of the crash and the smoke. One of those balls, generally called fire-balls, had fallen from the clouds, and was burning on the plain at a short distance; and the voice which I had heard, and the plunging, were as easily accounted for. Near the left-hand corner of the grove which surrounded the dingle, and about ten yards from the fire-ball, I perceived a chaise, with a postillion on the box, who was making efforts, apparently useless, to control his horses, which were kicking and plunging in the highest degree of excitement. I instantly ran towards the chaise, in order to offer what help was in my power. “Help me,” said the poor fellow, as I drew nigh; but before I could reach the horses, they had turned rapidly round, one of the fore-wheels flew from its axle-tree, the chaise was overset, and the postillion flung violently from his seat upon the field.
Well, there we certainly have a postillion who has been struck by lightning.
Picture from Wikipedia: This English etching from 1793 shows a postillion mounted on the front left horse