Dangers of word-for-word translation

Coping in English

Does this situation sound familiar? You're doing your best to speak English or some other language you have started learning. This time you're in a real-life situation, outside of the classroom. Now, in your native language you would know exactly what to say. Somehow, though, you just can't think of what you should say in the new language.

 

 What can you do? One strategy is just to translate the words you would say in your own language, one by one, into the new language, and just hope for the best. Probably you’ve done this from time to time.

 

This is usally a pretty good coping strategy. At least you manage to say something and continue the conversation! If you're lucky, the person you're talking to will help you out. Maybe you'll even learn some useful new words and expressions.

 

What's the worst that can happen in most situations? Whoever you are talking to will stare at you  and have no idea what you mean. Then you know it’s time to try a different way.

Oops!

Some situations turn out differently; this is what I call the "oops" factor. A German student of mine (let’s call him Peter) recently told me the following story about how he almost got into trouble when he translated word for word from German into English.

 

Peter was participating in a Spanish course several years ago where the students were an international group, including lots of Americans. At one point Peter felt the call of nature and wanted to excuse himself from the group. In German, an informal and slightly humorous thing to say in this situation would be, “Ich gehe für kleine Jungs.”

 

So Peter took this German expression and translated each word into English. What he said was, “I go for little boys.” Suddenly there was silence in the room and everyone was staring at him.

 

He had no idea what was going on! A little later, an American was nice enough to explain the situation to him. The American told him that in informal spoken English, if you say, “I go for . . . ,” you are saying that you find a certain type of person attractive. Oops! Peter had just told the group that he liked little boys as his sexual partners—not at all what he wanted to say!

What to say when you. . .

What "safe" expressions could Peter have used? Just saying, “Excuse me,” is fine. When you leave a group, you normally don't need to explain where you are going.

 

If you want, you can say, “I’m going to the men’s room / ladies’ room / restroom; I’ll be right back”—but it’s not really necessary to tell people what your plans are!

Using idioms

What can we learn from Peter’s situation? It can be tricky to translate funny or slang expressions from your first language into a language you are learning. As Peter found out, if you have an idiom (an expression where the combination of words has a special meaning) and translate the words, you may get a meaning that's completely different from what you wanted to say. So it’s usually safest to use idioms and colorful expressions in English only when you have an idea of how they will come across.

 

What can help you get a feeling for a new expression in English? Here are some things to think about:

  • Who normally uses that expression: Scientists? Little children? Rap musicians? You can use scientific language in your report, but normally not when you're making small talk. And you should be very careful with any English you hear in rap songs!
  • Is the expression formal, informal, old-fashioned, vulgar? A good dictionary (printed or online) can help you with this. See our online resources for some suggestions.
  • If you have a friend who speaks English well, ask for some adviceor check with your teacher.

P. S.

By the way, you can also use “go for” in other situations, when you're not talking about a person. If you go for an idea or a thing, you feel positive about it or think it could be useful. Take a look at these examples:

  • Your idea sounds good. I’ll discuss it with my boss, but I think we could go for that.
  • Wow, it’s such a hot day! I could really go for a nice cold beer right now: