Anecdotes from Life in Europe

My Bulgarian coworker needs to move some furniture this weekend. He found, via the Internet, a man with a van to help him. He called the guy, and they spoke in English. After hanging up, the coworker said “I think he’s Bulgarian. I’m going to call him back.” And thus, he called him back, and after a short conversation, turned to me and said “He’s Portuguese.  But he speaks Russian.”


On Mistranslation and General Confusion

On the whole, Germans speak excellent English. They start learning it in elementary school, so they develop much better accents than we Americans do when learning foreign languages. In Munich and Berlin, ordering something in accented German usually gets a response in English.

Aside: my German teacher was asking me about if I had noticed how Berliners tell the time (it’s a little different from standard German dialect) and I had to explain that no one in Berlin would speak German to me. Here in Essen, people are not so confident about their English, but will use it if needed. They are happy to let you practice your German, and in fact I often get encouraged to speak German by people who are excellent English speakers.

The dark side of this general English proficiency, though, is that sometimes a bit of overconfidence strikes. This seems to happen most often in translation of food and menus. One culprit is that the German verb “braten” can be translated as, variously, “bake”, “roast”, “fry”, “sauté”, “broil”, “braise” or “grill”. This adds to a lot of confusion on menus, where you need to investigate the context to determine what you’re getting.

However, there’s no linguistic reason for the translations Justin’s company inflicts on users of its cafeteria. Here are a couple of examples:


That “Wok” option should be translated as “pork strips with vegetables in sweet and sour sauce”, but instead, the powers that be decided “Schweinefleischstreifen” (literally “Pork-flesh strips”) should be “Porkbeef”. You may also notice they only take a cursory stab at translating the desserts, and don’t really understand that the compound nouns in German separate in English.


Again, the “Wok” is our unappetizing culprit, with the slightly more correct “Turkeymeat” substituted for what should be translated “Turkey breast strips”. Also, again they cannot be bothered to separate the dessert compound nouns. No photos are immediately available, but we’ve also seen the related “Beefmeat” in previous menus.

On my part, sometimes the things I see in the grocery store confuse me. A sterling example is this gem:


Squid is definitely not popular in the USA, and I’m not really sure what “American Sauce” is. Some Googling indicates that it’s likely some variant of Thousand Island Dressing, which makes this even more mystifying – it sounds pretty gross to me.