Monday, January 9, 2012

You Walk Me on the Cookie!

In one of my older posts (What Did You Say?) from March I wrote about the troubles of travelling to a country where one doesn't speak the language. At the end of the post I shared an embarrassing moment that happened to me shortly after moving to Germany.

To give you my own example, when I first starting teaching English, I knew very little German. One night in class I brought a snack and knowing that some of the participants are very health conscious I tried to explain that there were no artificial sweeteners or preservatives. I knew the word for sweeteners but not preservatives and it wasn't in my book, so I said in a German accent “No sugar and no--preservatives?” Everyone started laughing and said “I hope not.” You see, Präservativ in German is the word for condom. When they explained what I had said, I am sure my face turned red, but I learned a new word that night...and it is one I've never forgotten.

And at some point I believe I wrote (or intended to write, if I didn't) about how one of my students, when she was living in California, ate celery stalks for the first time. Sellerie (celery root) has always been popular in Germany but celery stalks are more of a recent thing, so when Susanne was an au pair 20 years ago, it was very new to her. She noticed that many people ate celery, but the family she stayed with-- celery fanatics. She said they had it every day for lunch, dinner, even in between meals. They loved celery. She didn't realize how important celery was until she was with a neighbor, sitting, nibbling on some snacks and...celery. The neighbor suddenly lowered her voiced and asked, "Do you mind me asking you a question?" Then she continued with "Well, I was much celery do you get? Do they give you enough?"

Susanne immediately answered, "Oh, yes. Lots and lots of celery. Sometimes I think too much celery. Some days I get celery for breakfast, lunch, and dinner." And then the other lady just starting laughing. And laughing. And when Susanne told us this story, we were laughing as well. In fact, I think Susanne laughed the loudest. Not only is she a loud laugher by nature, but she had learned that celery and salary, though they sound very similiar are not similar at all.

There are many "false friends" in German/English translation, and not being aware of them can put you in an odd position or make you look dumb. For instance, pickle and Pickel sound alike so it would be easy for one to think they are the same. But you definitely don't want to eat a Pickel (spot or pimple or ZIT). If you falsely believe that impraegniert and impregnate are the same and translate "I have impregnated my wife" (or more commonly--I made my wife pregnant") into "Ich hab mein Frau impraegniert!" then your German friends might look at you a bit strange, because you've just announced that you have made your wife waterproof. It would be even funnier when speaking of the neighbors dog getting your dog pregnant and falsely translated into "your dog made my dog waterproof".  Saying that would really freak them out a bit.

Need to buy some fabric to sew something? Don't confuse fabric and Fabrik or you might end up spending much more money than intended. Fabrik doesn't mean fabric but factory. Stoff is the proper word for fabric. A German Chef is not a cook but your boss. If you are brav, you are not brave; brav means well-behaved. Branche is not a part of a tree but a field/line of work. A branch would be an Ast. The word Art in German means a species, sort/kind of something. One of my favorites is gift. Everyone likes to get a gift, right? Not in German. A gift or present in German is a Geschenk. The word Gift in German actually means poison. So beware! All these closely related words can cause a heap of trouble.

Another area of concern is the use of idioms or phrases that cannot be translated word for word. We don't realize all the things we say that seem like nonsense to foreign speakers/English language learners. We think nothing of saying "It's time to hit the road" but when read literally, word for word, it has a whole different meaning. It is no different for native speakers of English to encounter the same problems in German.  For instance, the title of my blog post is You Walk Me on the Cookie! This is  direct translation of the German phrase "Du geht's mir auf den Keks!" Some take it a bit further and say "Du Geht's mir tierisch auf den Keks!" (you walk me like an animal on the cookie/or in British English...on the biscuit). This phrase means "You get on my nerves" or "you are annoying me". Not good.

There are so many good ones. Did you turn off the water rooster? Water = Wasser and Hahn = rooster. However, Wasserhahn means the faucet. How they ever came up with Wasserhahn for faucet, I'll will never understand. But then again, we English speakers also have our share of crazy words. Have you ever seen butter fly? Why butterfly? Or, really...what we were thinking? The German Stachelbeeren makes so much more sense.

What? Now you're going to have a "hissy-fit" because I like Stachelbeeren better than gooseberries? Ach Komm, stell dich nicht so an, oder? Directly translated that would be: Ahhh come! Stand you not so on, or? Haha...I love gibberish. Komm, stell dich nicht so an, oder? means Come on. Don't act that way. Okay?

I wanted to find more funny examples and started surfing the web. I found a forum which listed many examples in the comments`.If you want to take a look, then go here. If not, I will tell you two of my favorites. The first was submitted by someone under the useer name of Baddoggie. He wrote: 

My German ex- once said, "Yes, I know it's chilly. I'm going to wear a sweater overneath this blouse."


"Yes. Overneath it. Just like the blouse is underneath the sweater."

I was howling with laughter and actually rolling on the floor as she became more and more irritated while insisting it was a word. After all, it only makes sense that if you have an underneath you must have an overneath. She looked through every dictionary in the flat and when she finally conceded, she still insisted that she was still right to use that word and English just forgot to put it in.

In German there really is a piece of clothing called a Pullunder. It is like a tank top or vest which is funny to me since you put a vest OVER your shirt and don't pull it under.

The second one I like uses the term "Scheisse bauen" which means to make trouble. Unfortunately, this person translated word for word. FrankinBechhofen wrote:

On New Years I got a call at work that some drunk soldiers were at a taxi stand. The woman said in English they were loud, drunk and making shit. At first I thought they were actually pooping on the ground, but I seem to recall a German phrase about scheisse bauen or something like that.

That one was too funny. It sort of reminds me of the English saying "When the shit hits the fan". Try explaining that one to a foreigner.

I could go on and on with examples but I think you get the idea. Maybe I'll share some another time, but for now I am going to bed. Or shall I say, "I'm gonna' hit the sack".

Good night!


Tami Miller said...

HAHAHA! I love this post! I could learn a lot from you! Scheisse bauen! HAHA!!! Someone had me translate a german New Years card. If you wrote it word for word it make no sense, so I did the best I could with it. Obviously I did okay because the card recipient said the words matched the funny scene on the front of the card.

Laurie Kolp said...

hahah... Linda, you are hilarious... I can only imagine what goes through your mind on a daily basis being that you are an American living in Germany. Great post!

Dorothee said...

So fabulous and wondrous, the examples of literary false friends and sayings in different languages that can't really be translated. and "Gift" - i happened to mail about the word and its different meanings with Rose Hunter and Sherry O'Keefe recently, and we arrived at a surprise find, here's the mail:

the gift/gift is interesting, how the same words has different meanings. - i just looked for some background on it, and found this note that says “Gift” in German in former times was the word for “giving” / “price”, and that meaning is still present in the bride’s gift, which still is “Mitgift” in German. so the same root.

here’s the German passage, it even has Goethe in it:

“Gift n.
bereits im Althochdt., Mittelhochdt. "gift" als Bezeichnung für Gabe, Belohnung, Geschenk, Brautpreis [heute noch "Mitgift"] Wurzel ist das Verb "geben" [engl. to give]
"Gift" wurde bereits im Ahd. euphemistisch - also beschönigend-verhüllend - für "tödliche Gabe" gebraucht. Zunächst war es fem. (die Gift), dann 15. Jh. masc. und im 16. Jh. neutr. Bei Goethe noch: die Gift für Gabe, Geschenk.“

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