It was a perfect silly season story, an article tailor made for the dog days of August. Tuesday morning broke with this offering from a Reuters reporter in Europe:
Visitors to a tourist attraction in Berlin have been making off with an unusual memento—the 30 cm long penis of a Lego giraffe.
The Lego phallus belongs to a six metre tall model that has stood outside the entrance to the Legoland Discovery Centre on Potsdamer Platz since 2007.
“It’s a popular souvenir,” a spokeswoman for the centre said Tuesday. “It’s been stolen four times now …”
The first problem: a six-meter-tall giraffe was given a phallus measuring only 30 centimeters? As I always say, if you’re going to build a penis for a giant Lego giraffe, you’ve got to go all the way and give him a realistic Johnson. Otherwise, why go there at all? It’s about accuracy.
But that’s a moot point because it turns out that that the giant Lego giraffe was never given a penis. (I know, I’m just as outraged as you are.) People were in fact stealing its tail. Reuters appears to have been the victim of a mistranslation. Here’s how the Daily Telegraph explained the issue:
The confusion may be connected to the double meaning of the German word “schwanz”, which translates as both “tail” and a vulgar term for the male member.
In both versions of the story a spokeswoman for the centre was quoted as saying that the body part costs £2,600 (€3,000) to replace.
That’s one expensive schwanz!
Now, before going any further, I ask you to close your eyes and imagine the interview between the Reuters journalist and the spokeswoman. In my version, and in order for the mistranslation to work, the reporter would never have used the actual German word for penis at any point during their chat. It would have been schwanz this and schwanz that. One use of the real word for penis and the jig is up—the error doesn’t get made. Why would the reporter use slang, especially vulgar slang at that? It’s like conducting an interview using the word “wang” or “schlong” or “dick” instead of “penis.” That’s fine if I’m interviewing Andrew Dice Clay; but this was a conversation with someone who works at Legoland.
Of course, that scenario only works if the interview was conducted in German. If they spoke English, perhaps the reporter actually did use one of those slang English words and the German spokeswoman though it meant tail. Either way, it doesn’t make much sense. I emailed a contact at Reuters to try and get an explanation of what caused the error, but haven’t heard back.
Reuters eventually corrected the article, and a new version was sent over the wire with this correction placed at the top:
09:23 25Aug09 RTRS-CORRECTED-German Lego giraffe tail repeatedly stolen
(Correcting to ‘tail’ from ‘penis’)
If this was in fact a translation error, then Reuters appears to be just the latest in a long line of victims, particularly when it comes to German-English cock-ups. The Los Angeles Times, for example, offered lost travelers some unintentionally metaphorical advice in 2008:
Translations: An illustration accompanying the article on learning languages overseas in the Jan. 6 Travel section included the German phrase “Ich bin verloren” as a translation of “I’m lost.” That is a more metaphorical translation of the phrase, indicating a state of distress. “Ich weiss nicht wo ich bin” is the correct phrase for not knowing one’s whereabouts.
Another common trouble point is Japanese. The Guardian was very embarrassed about this error from last year:
In our account of an interview, conducted in English and in Japanese through a translator, with members of the Yellow Magic Orchestra (Back to the future, Film and Music, page 13, July 4), keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto was quoted in a way which may have implied that he found the presence of black people at a filming of the Soul Train TV show in Hollywood in 1980 “intimidating”. Sakamoto denies having said this, and our interviewer confirms there was nothing in their conversation that could have suggested that Sakamoto held racist views.
And same paper was nearly arrested by the irony police for this infraction:
A letter to the editor, which touched lightly on English ignorance of Welsh matters, was attributed in an early edition to Hwyl Fawry. It should have been attributed to Gill Caldwell. She signed off her letter with hwyl fawr, which translates roughly as “all the best” (March frogs, 6 March, page 35).