"I will not buy this record, it is the wax tadpole."

As a dedicated, to the point of self-destructive obsession, follower of the DealExtreme New Arrivals feed, I read a lot of very strangely translated product descriptions.

For a while there, for instance, they were regularly adding new "Gypsophila" laser pointers. There are about twenty of those listed now.

That one was pretty easy one to figure out. Gypsophila is the genus of flowering plants whose most famous member is "baby's breath", and baby's breath is known for its large number of tiny flowers. A laser pointer with a diffraction grating built into it will project tons of tiny dots in one pattern or another. "Tons of tiny dots" is in some way connected in Chinese or at least whatever translation software they're using with baby's breath flowers. And there you go, Latin plant name instead of "grid of dots".

Sometimes it takes a little more thought, though. Like when I found glasses and a clock in a shade of black called "Dumb".

DealExtreme aren't alone in using "dumb black" as a colour description. There are plenty of other Chinese dealers who do, too.

I briefly wondered whether this could have something to do with direct or accidental racism and/or survival outside English of racist archaisms, like that whole "nigger brown" thing. Then I thought a bit more laterally, and came up with this:

We, the Chinese sellers of inexpensive mass-produced objects, have a product which we describe in our complex language as having a glossy, shiny black finish. We wish to sell this product to those English-speakers who'll buy bloody anything.

None of us speak English, so we'll hit up our highly unreliable translating software, in which we have the same faith that awful tattoo artists have in those gibberish Asian fonts, for a suitable word.

What, context-not-understanding translation software, is an English word for whatever the Chinese is for "glossy/shiny"?

The software spits out several words, in an alphabetical list, and we take the one at the top: "Bright".

Hang on - we've got some matte-black products too. Not shiny, not bright - dull. So while we're here, we'd better find what the English for "dull" is.

Out comes another list, again alphabetical, and we again take the top result: "Dumb"!

Hm, better be careful, wouldn't want to look silly here. Forget the translation software, let's ask an English thesaurus what the antonym of "bright" is. Whatever that is, it will surely mean "matte".

Oh look, there's "dumb" again! So it must be exactly right!

Result: Descriptions of matte-black objects as being "dumb black" in colour.

(A plain Google search for "color dumb black" OR "colour dumb black", that extra word being there to filter out racists, currently turns up "About 84,800 results". But that's because Google reduces server load by not actually accurately counting hits for string-searches until you click on past the first page of results. There are actually only 30 results not counting duplicates. If you search for "dumb black" on eBay, you get several more examples of this mistranslation, along with various rude T-shirts.)

(P.S.: This post's title is of course partly this, and partly that.)

4 Responses to “"I will not buy this record, it is the wax tadpole."”

  1. lolly Says:

    I can see the kewl factor of the "Laser Stage Lighting" projectors with the "gypsophila" effect, but I'm not sure about why I might need a plain old laser pointer with that feature. Apparently SOMEBODY out there is buying them if there are so many listed...

    • dan Says:

      Yeah, I don't really get 'em, either, but I suppose they're fun if you don't know you could buy a little bit of diffraction-grating material very cheaply and stick it on an ordinary laser to get the same effect.

      From experience with doing that, kittens do NOT know what to do with the whole room has dancing dots all over it.

  2. wumpus Says:

    The United States has an interesting issue with how to have to put the names of non-Chinese (that is, most of them) politicians on the ballots for Chinese reading voters. If you can get a group of Chinese words that sound similar and mean something better than "bite the wax tadpole", you are golden. If not, at least in California you can call yourself whatever you want: Micheal Nava decided to call himself "Li Zheng Ping" ("Correct Fair Li"). His opponent let the state phonetically translate his name, Ulmer to "Ao Ma" (Australian Horse). Ulmer won anyway.

    The claims are that these are for people with "limited English abilities". I'm guessing just enough to pass a US citizenship test (I'm assuming those born in the US have better than "limited" English), as it seems odd being able to read in Chinese without bothering learning to read English (I guess their books on English were all in Chinese). Maybe I am overestimating the difficulty involved in reading Chinese.

    • dan Says:

      No, you're not, as I touch on in this piece:


      SPOKEN Chinese in its various forms (which people like me who know almost nothing about it oversimplify by just saying "Mandarin and Cantonese") is not an astonishingly difficult language, especially for people who already know some other tonal language. (This gets you past the problems speakers of non-tonal languages like English or Japanese have with, say, emphasising a word and thereby accidentally completely changing its meaning.)

      Standard WRITTEN Chinese is to a first approximation a big ol' mess, though, and so are most-to-all other non-alphabetic written languages where characters represent syllables or words. Many attempts have been made to fix this which I am again unqualified to talk about, but it is true that even SCHOLARS of character-based systems routinely forget how to write simple words. And typewriters and dictionaries are a nightmare.

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