New French Prime Minister’s Name Lost in Translation

Poor Jean-Marc Ayrault. The new French Prime Minister had hardly a moment to enjoy his new position when it was revealed that his last name, if pronounced properly, sounds like “penis” in Arabic. More specifically, it sounds like a slang term used to refer to the organ in the third person singular possessive form (i.e. “his penis.”)

Of course, the press was all over the awkward translation — the potential headlines and  jokes were just too good to ignore. For example, observed that under the circumstances, Ayrault ” would be considered linguistically as well as parliamentarily-speaking to be the ‘dick-head’ of cabinet.” Meanwhile, the Daily Mail’s headline pulled no punches: “Jean-Marc Ayrault leaves Middle East red-faced… as his name sounds like the Arabic for penis.”  Bloomberg chose to be more delicate: “France’s Ayrault Creates Anatomical Challenge For Arab Press.”

The mainstream Arabic press, of course, has less of an opportunity to snark, as they’d prefer to offend neither their more conservative readers nor the French Prime Minister himself.  They coped as best they could, taking liberties with both spelling and pronunciation, or just referring to him by his first name.

Obviously, a more permanent solution was needed, and fortunately the French foreign ministry stepped forward to issue some guidelines. Per the Daily Mail,

‘The ministry has sent out a press release to the Arabic media, telling them how the name should be said in French. But it also says that Mr Ayrault finds it acceptable that they pronounce all the letters of his name, including the “l” and the “t” at the end, so that it sounds like “Eye-rolte.”

There are only so many sounds that can be used to form words, making occasional occurrences like this inevitable. Fun fact: as the Daily Mail observes, the French themselves had to alter the pronunciation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s last name, as it sounds like “prostitute” in French. Or, remember the Australian woman who got her nickname inscribed onto her car’s vanity plates only to find that it had an unexpected meaning in Tagalog?

For more name translation humour, head on over to the Atlantic for a very funny round-up of names that just don’t travel well.


Get Lost in Translation

This blog post has been adapted from a presentation I gave this week to the Key Account Management Club at Cranfield School of Management. I spoke about the importance of professional translation in relation to communication and what can happen when it all goes wrong.

It was for an ‘after dinner’ speech, so I wanted to make it as informal / funny as possible while still communicating the key message. This isn’t a transcript of what I said but it’s close enough and is in the same style as the original talk.

Hello and Good Evening

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Richard Brooks. I graduated from Cranfield 10 years ago (MBA class of 2005) and have been working on/at K International, a UK translation provider, ever since. Initially in a general management position, then after leading a management buyout 2 years ago, I am now the Chief Exec of the organisation.

Whenever I meet new people (very fortunate that I have that opportunity regularly), I always seemed to be asked the same questions. So being as we’re all friends (or will be soon), let me cover these questions quickly and get them out of the way. Read more

happy birthday

Our Website is 18 Today

Our website is 18 years old today. Not the content or design I mean it’s been 18 years since we launched the first version of This makes me feel old. We had to have the dash because a logistics firm in NYC registered first, something which pains me every time I have to type or say the domain. Its a bit like when you have to use where XX is some random number because somebody else got there first.

Originally it was Dermot’s idea. I remember vividly when he said to me, “you know what Rich? This internet thing looks like it’s really going to take off, even Pepsi Cola has a website… I reckon we should create one”.

So we did. It was 1997, Titanic was on at the cinema, the Spice Girls had just made it big in America and at the end of August the whole nation stopped and watched the horrific news that Sunday morning finding out Princess Diana had died. Read more

What’s your Finnish Name?

Finland’s tourist board has come up with a novel way to promote their country’s tourism prospects:  The Finngenerator, a website that automatically turns your given name into a Finnish name.

According to the site,

“Finland is a country where things are based on nature and old mythology. Even people’s names are inspired by the woods, animals and mythological characters.

Have a try and find your inner Finn by changing your name. Just type your name here and let the generator tell you what you would be called if you were a Finn.”

Let’s give it a try, shall we?

My name is Alison Kroulek, but apparently in Finnish I would be called “Hilla Halla,” which translates to “Cloudberry Forest.” Mmmm, cloudberries…

Our fearless leader Richard Brooks’ Finnish alter ego  is Ahti Ilvesniemi. “Ahti” is the Finnish god of the sea, and “Ilvesniemi” means “lynx cape.”

In Finnish, our marketing manager Johnny Henchman would be known as Pyry Petäjä. “Pyry” means blizzard, and
“Petäjä” means “Pine Tree.”

According to the Daily Mail, which translated a bunch of celebrity names, Kanye West comes out with the Finnish moniker “Sampo Ilvesniemi,” which the newspaper notes is a

“curious combination of a mythical money-maker and a fearsome wild cat. ‘Sampo’ is the name of a magical mill in the Kalevala which creates riches, Ilvesniemi refers to the sharp-toothed lynx.”

Actually, according to the Finngenerator, “Ilvesniemi” refers to a lynx cape rather than the beast itself. So, Kanye ‘s Finnish name would roughly translate to “a magical moneymaking mill with a flamboyant sense of fashion.” How apropos.

Each name “translation” is accompanied by a gorgeous photograph of a scene from Finland, the better to lure you into coming to visit.

What’s your Finnish name? Share it in the comments!

10 Food packs we DIDN’T translate

Translating food packaging isn’t easy – we should know because we do over a thousand products a week. These guys have got it so wrong its funny but could you imagine your product on shelf saying something stupid in a different language? Nor could we, give us a call and we’ll sort it out for you.

For now… here are the top ten disasters we’ve seen this week. In no particular order… Read more

Does the German Language Sound Angry?

Just like different types of music, each language has its own distinctive sound. French, often described as the “language of love,” could be compared to a soft, seductive ballad. English might be a radio-friendly pop song. But what about German? By reputation at least, the mother tongue of Bach, Beethoven and Goethe is the death metal of languages. Non-German speakers often describe it as “harsh,” “angry” and “guttural.”

This reputation is used to hilariously good effect in the videos below, which translate the same word into multiple languages, ending with German:

Read more

Dear Santa…

This is yet another email I am sending to you. I somehow cannot give up on hope, nearly thirty years on.

How have you been?

Did you read the “Prevent Diabetes Today!” leaflet I sent to you last month? Don’t take it personally, I just saw your picture on a tin of candies. You obviously put on a little weight, didn’t you? Here is an idea for a New Year resolution 🙂

On the other hand, some diet and exercise may work miracles, especially now when you’ve found your second half. Huh! How do I know about it?

The other week some lady aged around 60 said she liked my scarf very much. It was the one you got me for last Christmas, remember? When I said I got it from you, her eyes sparkled and she smiled kindly. I am not easy to fool, so I caught the drift.

Please tell me, is it very difficult to maintain such a long distance relationship?

Anyway, as usual, please find attached a signed list of all my good deeds for 2010 (plus the last week of 2009). Last year’s lot was sent to you via email, I am afraid ‘good deeds09.xls’ bounced back to me. I realised that only this month.

I assume the recession must have hit your pocket too. Therefore I kept my wish list is as short as possible. BTW, are you cutting heads and employ fewer helpers now?

I also hope you didn’t switch to airways. The airports are not very reliable at the moment to be honest, even though the tickets are sometimes dirt-cheap. Read more

15 Words we Need in English

15 Words we Need in English

The English language is notoriously bizarre. Meaning that some words simply do not translate. Whether it be Japanese, French or Vietnamese, there are words in other languages that we are yet to have the equivalent of in English. Here are a few of my favourite examples. Read more

28 Signs we didn’t Translate

Something tells me the translations of the following 28 signs are not quite right.

Its was an accident


Anyone missed a foot?

beware-of-missing-foot Read more

Allo Allo

British Woman Wakes Up With a French Accent

Can you imagine going to bed and waking up sounding like you’re from another country? What if you you started talking in a foreign accent and weren’t able to stop? That’s exactly what happened to Kay Russell, a British woman who went to sleep with a severe migraine and woke up speaking in what sounds like a French accent.

According to the BBC, Ms. Russell apparently has what’s called “Foreign Accent Syndrome,” a rare condition in which injury to the brain, in this case caused by the migraine, results in the afflicted person exchanging their normal accent for what sounds like a foreign one. As researcher Sophie Scott explained to the BBC, “People might put little vowel sounds in their speech, so they might-a sound-a little-a like-a this — that’s read by English speakers as being an Italian accent.”

To an outsider, it might sound glamorous to wake up with a foreign accent, but it’s actually an incredibly disorienting experience. Friends tend to be put off by it, and strangers treat you like you’re a foreigner even if you’re still in the same city you’ve lived in all your life. As Scott explained, “It’s not only that you don’t sound like who you are. You don’t sound like the others around you either.” Read more