According to Mark Twain, a bad translation was the reason his story "The Celebrated Jumping
Frog of Calaveras County" was a flop in France. He even translated the French version back into
English just to prove his point. The original was:
Then he says, "one-two-three-git!" and him and the feller touched up the frogs from
behind, and the new frog hopped off lively, but Dan'l give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders
-so-like a Frenchman, but it warn't no use.'
Twain's back-translation from the French version:
Then he added: "one, two, three-advance!" Him and the individual touched their frogs by
behind and the frog new put to jump smartly, but Daniel himself lifted ponderously, exalted the
shoulders thus, like a Frenchman -to what good?
Unfortunately, it is not necessary to make stuff like that up. Here is the opening passage from a
local website about the 18th -century Bourbon Hunting Lodge at Lake Fusaro, near Naples:
Oustripped the characteristic wood's bridge from behind of the Lake's Villa or Ostrichina, it's
possible getting to the natural islet on which in 1782 was built the Royal Casino for hunting in
Fusaro wanted by Ferdinando IV of Bourbon.
First, I am grateful that I speak English, a language that has become the default lingua franca for
much of the world. I know that if I wander into the mountainous regions of northwestern Kashmir, I
don't have to fumble for the Burushaski phrase for "What do you mean there's no Burger King?!"
only to find out that I have mispronounced a pronoun, thus insulting the great-grandfowl of my
informant's pet duck. They (the ducks, too) will speak at least enough English to direct me to the
nearest minefield. But, second, I would NOT dare to publish anything in Burushaski without having
at least a native-quacking duck read it first.
Third, languages change anyway: pax in Latin becomes pace in Italian; olden Germanic declensions
have shrunk in modern English to such oddities as "whom" (there are a lot of students whom use it
wrong just because they think it looks educated, or "cool," as they might say); and "How now, good
sir" becomes "Yo, dawg!" Thus, I am not about to lay my fragile bones beneath the great
glottochronological juggernaut of haplology, metathesis, and Verner's Law. Change away!
I just wonder if the demand for immediate English everywhere in the Empire has not outstripped the
supply of competent translators. Whoever worked on my DVD player helpfully left these
-Disconnect the main plugs from the supply socket when not in use.
-When you are not using the equipment for a long period of time, disconnect the power cord from the AC outlet.
These instructions were printed as you see them, one after the other. I have a feeling that the
translator was trying to tell me two different things, but I can't figure out how or even if the second
thing is different from the first thing. I'm sure it was clear in Japanese or Tok Pisin or whatever the
original was. But since I'm not sure what that other thing is or isn't that I'm supposed to do or not do
if I turn off my equipment, I dare not turn it off at all. I'm doomed, like some electronic version of
The Flying Dutchman, to watch video forever.
Or what about the New Testament translator in the nether reaches of South America who couldn't
find a word for "donkey" in his target language and had to resort to descriptive circumlocutions like
"animal with big ears"? Now there's a tribe of poor saps running around in the Amazon who think
that Jesus hopped into Jerusalem on a giant rabbit.
I advance the hypothesis (upgraded from a "guess" and soon to be a summer blockbuster "theory"
opening at a fine university near you) that linguistic change (1) is encouraged by the geographical
colonial expansion of native speakers and (2) that such change feeds back into native language use
and that native speakers are powerless to stop it. Thus, in 1300 Dante wrote De Vulgari Eloquentia,
an essay promoting vernacular Tuscan instead of Latin as a literary language. Interestingly, to be
taken seriously he had to write the essay in Latin. (I probably find this more amusing than Dante
did at the time.) He was persuasive, and now my neighbors' poor kids here in Naples are
browbeaten with Standard Written Italian by the same type of arrogant weenie pedants who beat
Dante's brow with Standard Written Latin when he was in school. Essentially, however, Dante was
just caving in to the reality that Rome had spread and spread over the centuries. No doubt, little bits
of Spanish Latin and Palestinian Latin and Celtic Latin had filtered back into Italy, and suddenly
correct noun declensions were not high on Guido Clodbuster's list of ways to make it through the
On that note, excuse me. I have a bridge to outstrip.