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Lost in Translation

I’ve always been fascinated by language. Its flexibility, and the way it evolves. I’m told that when I was three, I wanted to know why ‘habit’ only had one ‘b’, whereas ‘rabbit’ had two… Then I became a long-term traveller, and discovered that other people liked to play with the language as well. Go to any country where the first language isn’t English, and you’ll come across some wonderful examples of inaccurate translations. In China, it’s called ‘Chinglish’. It’s even better when you can read the Chinese, and you know what the original says.

How would you feel if you saw a professionally produced sticker on a local tuk-tuk in Beijing, which said, ‘Watch Out, Knockhead.’ The original script, ‘xiao xin peng tou’ literally translates ‘take care, bang head’ – in England it would say something like ‘Mind your head.’

A sign by the lake in Lijiang warns you in Chinese that the water is deep, and that you should take care. Underneath, the English translation reads, ‘Fall into the water carefully.’ In Yangshuo, the instruction to not deface the carvings is rendered as, ‘No touch and no carve.’ In my hotel, the notice in the bathroom exhorted me to ‘slip carefully’, while the placard by the bed asked me ‘please not on the bed to smoke cigarette.’ But it’s not just the locals who mistranslate or misunderstand the English language. Every so often you meet an ‘Earnest English Speaker’, a term coined by Peter Moore in ‘The Wrong Way Home’. They are very keen for you to help them improve their language skills. I came across a young, quite charming Sikh teenager in Amritsar who volunteered to act as my guide around the Golden Temple if, in return, I would help him with his English. He seriously believed that by using a thesaurus, and finding multisyllabic replacements for the words he already knew, his language would be considerably improved. So he would use ‘perambulate’ instead of ‘walk’ and ‘deliberate’ instead of ‘talk’. When I asked him if the pool was deep he replied, “Yes, it’s profound.”

Petra, a delightful trekking companion on my first trip round the Annapurna Circuit, wanted to improve her already excellent formal and idiomatic English, so she asked me to correct her errors. There were actually very few. But the letters ‘v’ and ‘w’ are pronounced differently in Germany, so she would say ‘willage’ instead of ‘village’ and ‘vich’ instead of ‘which’. I got her to pretend that words beginning with ‘v’ really began with ‘w’ and wice wersa. Vich solved the problem. Wery clever.

European travellers often apologize for their perceived lack of fluency in English. A young Dane who I met while diving in the Philippines did so frequently, then used words like ‘assimilate’, ‘mature technology’, and idioms like ‘chummy’. We told him to stop apologising.

I frequently meet speakers of ‘British English’ who complain bitterly about new words, new pronunciations and new constructions, and bemoan the way in which the purity’ of the English language is being debased.

In addition, I’ve also met travellers, especially Europeans, who wear their prejudices against Americans on their sleeves. Mainly because they aren’t able to distinguish between the American people and the American government. Sad, really.

Anyway. Coming back from the Perhentians to Kuala Besut in Malaysia, I was talking to the owner of the hostel about the whereabouts of a cinema, and I used the word ‘movie’. An English lady in the common room told me, quite pointedly, that since I was also English, the correct word was ‘film’.

“What’s wrong with movie”, I asked.

“It’s an American word.”


“I won’t use American words. They’re ruining our language.”

“Doesn’t that restrict your vocabulary and inhibit your ability to communicate?” I asked, innocently.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what English words do you use instead of, for example, teenager, typewriter, hangover, hindsight, babysitter, commuter, radio?”

“Those are all English words.”

“No, they’re not. They’re all American words which British English has adopted, either because we didn’t have a word for it, or because, like ‘radio’, it was a better word. Or do you still insist on using the word ‘wireless’ which your grandfather would have used?” She was quite put out.

Sometime later, I was involved in a conversation which included two young Americans. They had come across the ‘America is ruining our language’ syndrome, usually from British travellers, and asked me how I felt. I related the above story, and they laughed...

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