Saturday, October 31, 2009

Smörgåsbord Franglais

IKEA, October 2007. This cheerful little sign translates a Swedish colloquialism into English by making use of a common French phrase. To make matters worse, the sign misspells bon appétit as bon appetite.

Happy Halloween!

Capitol Hill. Here's a bit of Halloween-themed topical humor. Most English speakers would interpret RIP as "rest in peace," but the abbreviation originally invoked the Latin requiescat in pace (may he/she rest in peace) or requiescant in pace (may they rest in peace).

P.S. The letters RIP could also work in Italian: riposa/riposino in pace.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Metro Reading Materials

Metro riders are avid readers. During my commute to work today, I noticed that every person in my sparsely-populated train was reading - and each reader was using a different technology.

I decided to ask these people what they were actually reading and this is the breakdown (L to R): The Koran, in Arabic (this was a bound codex, well-worn and falling apart); Tocqueville's De la démocratie en Amérique, or Democracy in America (Kindle eBook reader); and the free Metro daily (newspaper).

FDR Memorial: Braille, Inverted

Here's a detail of the FDR Memorial incorporating Braille as a design motif. Instead of raised bumps, there are small dips; my only explanation for this is that a Braille plate must have been inverted in the process of making these decorations.

I wonder if someone who knows Braille could actually read this inscription (like a sighted person trying to read text reflected backwards in a mirror?).

P.S. For more on this memorial, see this earlier posting.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Embassies: India and Canada

I find it interesting (whether here or traveling abroad) to see how nation-states with more than one official language choose to display those languages in public spaces.

The entrance to the Embassy of India here in DC seems to subvert an implicit linguistic hierarchy, placing the Hindi inscription (भारत का राजदूतावास) "above" the equivalent inscription in the colonial language of English.

The Canadians, on the other hand, seem to emphasize the "equal status" of two languages by positioning them both in a single line below the nation's seal (English on the left, French on the right).

P.S. Here's another version of Canadian bilingualism (over doorway). Once again English is on the right and French on the left, with the seal in the middle, slightly raised:

Braille, Inaccessible (FDR Memorial)

The FDR Memorial acknowledges the disability status of this president in a variety of ways, including a statue depicting him seated in a wheelchair and (in the image above) Braille inscriptions incorporated as a design motif along some of the walls or posts. Unfortunately, some of these Braille inscriptions are placed so high up that most people (sighted or non-sighted) cannot even reach them.

Ah, the irony - sighted people may find these inscriptions beautiful, but ultimately illegible; meanwhile, those who might actually understand the inscriptions cannot access them.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Chinatown: Goethe-Institut

The Goethe-Institut takes the innovative strategy of alternating German and Chinese signs. This Chinese sign reads "German Cultural Center" ( 德國文化中心) but the textual layout requires you to read left to right, scanning vertically from the bottom to the top of the banner.

Strictly speaking, the characters should be reversed and rotated clockwise 90 degrees so they can be read from up to down along the banner.

Of course, the Germans are well-known for sloppiness and imprecision so these oversights aren't surprising.

Chinatown: Unique Restaurant

What is the only business establishment in DC Chinatown that does NOT have a corresponding Chinese inscription? Mehak Authentic Indian Cuisine.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chinatown: Hillel

This sign transcribes "Hillel" phonetically as 海 (hǎi) 勒 (lè). At first I thought it was strange that Hebrew was absent from this sign, but I now suspect the "flames" in the background might actually be a very stylized form of the appropriate Hebrew letters (הלל). If so, this is a rare trilingual sign!

Chinatown: Fado Irish Pub

Is is possible to offend two different cultural groups at once? Fado Irish Pub & Restaurant features a stereotypical Celtic font as well as a Chinese inscription 愛爾蘭酒館 ("Ireland Pub/Tavern"). There's also an attempt to replicate these Chinese words in a more archaic "seal script" going down the column. I can't quite figure this out - some of the characters are disassembled and at least one is backwards (flipped horizontally).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Shaw: Slum Historique

Shaw (9th between Q and Rhode Island NW), early 2007. In mid-2007 somebody painted over the words "slum historique" on this (in)famous mural.

Strangely, the unflattering French along the other side of the building was kept untouched: "blvd. de rêves blessés" (blvd. of wounded dreams) and le café "putain qui pue" (stinking prostitute café).

I hear a "real" restaurant is going to be moving into that space.

Lincoln Memorial: Veterans Day, 2008

Lincoln Memorial, Veterans Day, 2008. People writing in many languages to congratulate newly-elected Pres. Obama. Note the many variants on the "¡Si, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!" slogan.

National Mall: Folklife Festival 2009

National Mall, Folklife Festival July 2009. One of the featured cultures this year was Wales so they included the obligatory "Welsh has lots of long place names" signage.

Capitol Hill: Yu Ying Public Charter School

Capitol Hill. Signs for the Yu Ying public charter school (offers Chinese language immersion) have been up around town for some time now.

I'm baffled by the name of the school (育英 = Yu Ying). The school's website claims 育英 means "cultivate excellence," but 英 often means "English" which gives me the impression this is about teaching Chinese speakers English (and not vice versa). Maybe I'm missing something.

Supreme Court: Moses and Tablets

Supreme Court Frieze. Moses' beard covers up "thou shalt not" (לא) on each of these commandments so the text reads "murder" (תרצח), "commit adultery" (תנאף), and "steal" (תגנב).

P.S. For another take on the ten commandments, see this Torah ark.

Chinatown: Starbucks Coffee

Chinatown. This one is a doozy. "Starbucks Coffee" = 星 (xing, which means "star") + 巴 (ba) 克 (ke), i.e. phonetic rendition of "bucks" + 咖 啡 (ka fe = "coffee").

P.S. This translation isn't particular to DC Chinatown; I've been informed this is the standard translation of Starbucks Coffee across places like Hong Kong, Macau, etc.

Chinatown: Friendship Arch

Chinatown. This is the inscription on the "friendship gate" erected in 1986 when Marion Barry was Mayor - note the Sinification of his name, bottom right!

As far as I can tell the text is correct but the writing really could have been executed better.

Chinatown: Quiznos Sub

Chinatown. Quiznos Sub becomes simply 三明治 (sandwich).

Chinatown: Dunkin' Donuts

Chinatown. Pure phonetic translation = string of nonsense syllables 當 (dang) 肯 (ke) 多 (duo) 娜 (na).

Chinatown: Ann Taylor Loft

Chinatown. The characters underneath phonetically "translate" the name Ann Taylor: 安 (an) 泰 (tai) 勒 (lei). 泰勒 is used in Chinese-language media as a transliteration (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor) so I guess this isn't that bad.

The Chinese writing is awful, though. I get the sense that many of the signs in Chinatown were created by people who don't even speak/write the language.

Chinatown: Hooters

Chinatown. "Hooters" becomes 貓頭鷹 (owl) 餐廳 (restaurant/cafe).

P.S. The Chinese word for "owl" does literally break down to 貓 (pussycat) 頭 (head) 鷹 (bird) so maybe there's a translingual pun lurking somewhere in there.

The Ritz

The Ritz. The Spanish text underneath specifies that vagrants are not allowed to call the police (?!). Or at least that's what "Google Translate" says it means.

I've since been corrected regarding the Spanish translation, which does indeed read "loiterers are not permitted; the police will be called" (the word se would be the so-called impersonal pronoun). Even if the Spanish translation is correct, I'm still intrigued by the difference in length between the two inscriptions. On this sign, English communicates a message through very compressed verbal constructions, while another language "takes longer" to say the same thing.

Metro: Les Bureaucrats de DC

Federal Triangle Metro, October 2009. So ironic that a sign announcing the linguistic competency of DC civil servants lacks proper editing (see the words squished together in the third line).

P.S. The words in question are "langue" (language) and "gratuitement" (free of charge, no cost). Somebody else has suggested to me that the adverb "gratuitement" - instead of "gratis" - might constitute an additional error (non-idiomatic construction).