You thought that bad translations of websites, user manuals or spam messages in your mailbox were a thing of the late 20th century and of globalization? Far from it! Think again.
In 1883, a gentleman named Pedro Carolino apparently had the brilliant idea to copy a very successful Portuguese-French phrasebook by José da Fonseca titled “O Novo guia da conversação em francês e português”. To give his Portuguese-English version of the phrasebook some credibility, Carolino added da Fonseca as co-author. You could also say this is somewhat a form of creative commons share alike.
So far so good. But besides adorning himself with the borrowed plumes of José da Fonseca, there was another problem for Pedro Carolino. Looking at the English translations in his version titled “O Novo Guia da Conversação, em Português e Inglês, em Duas Partes” it seems rather obvious that Pedro Carolino did not speak one word of English.
But apparently cocksure of himself, he decided to take a dictionary in order to translate da Fonseca’s book, unfortunately with all the unintentional literal translations and misunderstandings of idiomatic expressions that always come with such dictionary based translation efforts.
The book was then published in the UK and United States under the title “English as She is Spoke” and the U.S. version even got an introduction by none other than Mark Twain who said
“Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.”
The (infamous) book is still a popular item in the professional translator community around the world and serves as an example of both how not to write a language book and how not to translate. For the rest of us it is simply hilarious.
Below you find a version of the book from 1884 in which you will find nuggets like
- “He has me take out my hairs.”
- “He burns one’s self the brains.”
- “You hear the bird’s gurgling?”