Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Lost, Found and Funky in Translation

Reading signs around Paris was one of my favorite ways to learn French.  Concise use of words to fit in a given space is often a good quick shot of local language.   While Paris is known for being decorated with sexy public advertising, Dutch signs in the Alkmaar area might have a quirky play on words that is sometimes just how the language plays out to the Anglophone mind, and sometimes more.  

The best name for a bedding store that I have ever seen is right here in Alkmaar.   De Bed Weters has been going strong for 15 years with no indications of drying up anytime soon.   “Weten” in Dutch means “to know.”   They are “The Bed Knowers,” and take a look under the name to see, “Beterinbedden.”  That’s clear enough.  The logo says that people there know about beds and are proficient at activities that take place in them.  It seems like it could be a fun place to work.

I visited the store to ask more about the name and if the pun was as intentional of a language crossover as it appeared.  One employee proclaimed, “Oh yes! It means to go pee-pee in the bed!”  “Ok, so they do get it,” I thought to myself.  I was then introduced to Pieter, a co-owner of the store, for more information.

Pieter confirmed that a family member of the ownership came up with the ingenious multi-meaning company name.  “Everyone says it’s a funny name and people remember it,” he said.  He explained that the name is also a play on the Dutch term, “betweter,” which means someone who is a know-it-all or wise guy.  Pieter said that during the busier months for tourism, when the Alkmaar cheese market is open, buses stop in front of the store for tourists to get out and take photos.

I heard about “false friends” in language when I was studying at the Alliance Fran├žaise in Paris.  This means words that are spelled the same in foreign languages, but mean different things.  One instance is the French word “pain,” which simply means “bread” in English.  I’ve seen “Maison de Pain” on a store front, that could be mixed translated into a house of torture instead of where one might enjoy a croissant.

The company Nutricia has a shocking example of false friends on a small sign I saw at a snack bar at a children’s play room.  A photo of a sweet-looking little girl has the caption: “Mama, die, die, die... Alsjeblieft”   No, this is not an ad for a Chucky-style horror film.  It’s promoting the drinks near it, and “die” in Dutch means “that” or “those.”  “Alsjeblieft” means “please.”  So one could easily apply a mixed translation this cute child asking their mother to leave the Earth...please!  But these fun-loving Dutch kids probably only read, “Mama, (buy me) that, that, that…please.”  I imagine this dual-language advertisement is not intentional, and the possible implication is certainly far more serious than losing control of one’s bladder while sleeping.

A pleasant stroll through the historic center of Alkmaar will bring one past the Harmonie Cinema.  The films advertised for the evening are prominently displayed outside.  “Season of the Bitch” starring Nicolas Cage was the first marquee to get my attention.  OK, this is no smart play on words or false friend.  Shouldn’t it be “Season of the Witch?”  Next to it was “Gulliver’s Wravels” on display.  Further down the line was “Sonny Toy.”  Uh, “Sonny Boy?” 

This looks like the product of a bored employee with too many - or not enough - sign letters at his disposal, or management trying to spice things up.  Still not as much fun as The Bed Weters, or as ominous as the Nutricia display, but it got my attention just the same.

An older, full-size Chevy Blazer parked on Laat Street in the east part of the city center looked like an apple pie slice of Americana here in Holland.  I spent several minutes admiring the machine, and then took a step back when I saw the bumper sticker. 

I’m not going to quote exactly what’s in the photo, but I’m curious if the language mistake is intentional.  Either way, it was something odd to see on this large American vehicle a long way from where it was manufactured, wearing a bumper sticker with intense local attitude.

As far as understanding language goes, Dutch sign are often easier to decipher than French for the average English speaker.  Dutch and English are closer in many ways, and the typical anglophone tourist – or expat – should easily understand some business signs like the restaurant and flower shops shown in the photos.  I don’t think further explanation is needed.