Sunday, 27 January 2013

Lost in Translation

The international programs at UU are taught in English, and as a rule Dutch people speak English quite fluently and willingly. However, awkward collisions between Dutch and English are unavoidable. Here are a few tips for navigating the language highway.

Beware automatic translators on Dutch websites! Like satnav, they can lead you astray. Recently I was seeking information about spinning classes on a Dutch health club web site and was surprised to find that the club offered, in bold type, “Virtual Spiders!” Which only makes sense once you realize “spin” in Dutch means “spider,” and the plural, “spinnen” translates to “spiders.” Otherwise, you might mistake a cycling class for a horror movie. Then again, perhaps virtual spiders are included as motivation to spin especially vigorously!
When speaking Dutch, be careful about slipping in English words that don’t necessarily translate well. For example, the Dutch word for “wife” is “vrouw.” The sound-alike Dutch word, “wijf,” is a perjorative term meaning “bitch” or “old bag.” So unless you really don’t like somebody’s wife, take care when referring to her as such! Also, note that the Dutch word for buttocks is “bil.” This just might account for the amused expression you receive when you politely ask for your “bill” after dinner. And the nickname for William, “Willem” in Dutch, is “Wim,” so your new friend Willem might misunderstand if you ask whether you can him “Bill.”
Also be careful with Dutch words that sound similar but have very different meanings. For example, “borstel” means brush, while “borsten” means breasts. So, when shopping for a hair brush, don’t ask the clerk whether she has borsten and where they may be located. And using "kers," cherry, when you meant "kaars," candle, might find you looking for candles in the produce aisle. 
Of course, awkward translations also abound when a Dutch speaker slips in a  Dutch word while speaking English. My mother once had a Dutch friend who cheerfully informed her new American in-laws that she was going upstairs for a “douche,” which in Dutch means shower. Thanks for sharing! My aged Dutch grandmother used to raise eyebrows when asking for “prik,” soda, in American restaurants. And “dik” means fat, thick, or bulky, but might be misconstrued when describing someone as a little dik.
Even a technically correct translation will not always translate well. For example, in asking for a match or lighter in America, you would ask for a “light.” However, if you use the proper Dutch word for light, “licht,” you may be quizzically referred to a nearby lamp. In Dutch, you would ask for “vuur,” fire, and matches are “lucifers.” I imagine a Dutch person asking an American for fire or Lucifer might be misunderstood, as well!
So buy a good Dutch/English dictionary, take Dutch classes through ING, go to language exchange Meet Up groups, and practice, practice, practice! Meanwhile, I am off to the gym for some virtual spiders. I shall work my bill off, have a quick douche, find my borsten, and then set some cherries on fire with Lucifer -- sounds relaxing, no?


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