Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Sept 2015   Allegro ma non troppo #13  (original pub. date, Lion Magazine, 1991)


"Waiter! What's this castanet doing in my café au lait?"


"Pepsi will raise your ancestors from the dead!" That, at least, was the promise on Taiwanese billboards a few years ago. It was an unfortunate translation of the commercial slogan "Come to life with Pepsi!"

I think the same translator did the instructions for my video-recorder. I have a vision that everything produced in the Orient is made in the same factory: televisions, pianos, computer knock-offs, wristwatches, motorcycles, frying pans with synthesized voices warning you to turn the bacon —it's all done in the same place on the same assembly line by the same guys! And when they have adjusted that final vertical hold and put that last door-panel or trombone slide in place or sharpened the edges on that last ninja throwing star, just to prove that they really can do everything, they run chop-chop down to the end of the line, scribbling translations of operating instructions in twelve languages as they go, stuffing them into the appropriate packing crates at the last possible minute, all of which are then loaded onto melancholy little mules who wend their way down, down the steep mountains and along the mist-shrouded banks of an unnamed river in a secluded valley to a distant harbor where great vessels wait to carry the goods to a world hungry for the technology that comes from the East. The mules, of course, are sworn to secrecy. You will never, ever get them to tell you the location of their masters' mountain works, a place where they (their masters, not the mules —c'mon, pay attention!) turn out nefarious instructions like these:


• Disconnect the main plugs from the supply socket when not in use.
• When you are not using the equipment for a long period of time, disconnect the power cord from the AC outlet.

These instructions were printed as you see them, one after the other. I have a feeling that the translator was trying to tell me two different things, but I can't figure out how or even if the second one is different from the first one. I'm sure it was clear in Japanese or Tok Pisin or whatever the original was. But since I'm not sure what that other thing is or isn't that I'm supposed to do or not do if I turn off my equipment,  I dare not turn it off at all. I'm doomed, like some electronic version of The Flying Dutchman, to watch video forever.

According to Mark Twain, a bad translation was the reason his story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was a flop in France. He even translated the French version back into English just to prove his point. The original was:


Then he says, "one—two—three—git!" and him and the feller touched up the frogs from behind, and the new frog hopped off lively, but Dan'l give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders —so—like a Frenchman, but it warn't no use.

Twain's back-translation:

Then he added: "one, two, three—advance!" Him and the individual touched their frogs by behind and the frog new put to jump smartly, but Daniel himself lifted ponderously, exalted the shoulders thus, like a Frenchman —to what good?

And what about the UN delegate who said, "L'Afrique n'érige plus des autels aux dieux"  ("Africa no longer erects altars to the gods"), only to have some interpreter mishear the last part of the sentence as hótels odieux and say that "Africa no longer builds horrible hotels".

Or the New Testament translator in the nether reaches of South America who couldn't find the word for "donkey" in his target language and had to resort to descriptive circumlocutions like "animal with big ears". Now there's a tribe of poor saps running around in the Amazon who think that Jesus hopped into Jerusalem on a giant rabbit.

Undoubtedly it's the same translator who worked on my VCR. He's around here someplace. I'm going to find him and when I do, him will I be forcing reveal me place secret that I experience off-turn knowledge of my see-tape device.

But, have a heart, you say. After all: "The ghost wants to work, but the meat has spoiled." Right?

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