Choosing the Wrong Translation

As a high school student half a century ago, I sat in an English Literature class one day when the teacher introduced the idea that language changes, new words come in, and old words that fall out of usage remain as quaint reminders of the past.  To demonstrate this, he showed us a low priced kit of wood carving tools, made somewhere in Asia, where the label upon them had been translated into English by someone using a bilingual dictionary. The tools would be good, the label read, for every “quidity” that one might wish to carve. To high school teenagers in 1968 suburban Los Angeles, that label was meaningless, because “quidity” had dropped out of usage sometime long ago and far away. 

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Watching TV in Taiwan the evening of election day, January 11th, we saw many ads. Though a few of these were in Taiwanese, most of them carried audio in Mandarin that was too fast for us to make much sense of. One product, with a name like “white flower”, was a fragrant oil with medicinal powers, intended for application to the skin. That’s about as much as I could get as spoken words flew past my ears and graphics past my eyes.  I did catch a couple bits, though. The name of the product had been transliterated into latin script, and looked as if it followed the pronunciation of the characters in Cantonese. Then there was the English part, “Embrocation Oil”. 

About a week later I looked it up in an online dictionary. Apparently it exists to renew the skin by removing dead flakes from the surface, by “embrocating” what it touches. 

I think somebody, sometime long ago, found the word in a bilingual dictionary and pinned it to the product.  “Salve”, “ointment” or “lotion” would have done better by me. But then, I’ve learned a new word. Or maybe, like “quidity”, an old one. 

David Alexander now resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan. 

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