October 2001. I'm in Leipzig staying with Andrea, a recently discovered "friend of a friend", exploring the city before I head for my final destination, Prague. Leipzig is an invigorated little onion - ornate Englightement center, brick and mortar Socialist middle, glittering glass capitalist outskirts. Of all the cities I have ever visited, its history is the most overt, written in its expanding strata like geological layers. Andrea is a fine and enthusiastic guide through it all. She's fairly new to the city too, so we explore together.
One evening we return to her place and she offers to cook dinner for the both of us. Three months prior, she'd been in Italy studying the language and absorbing the cuisine. Now she knows the recipe for a good marinara. When she conjures up all the necessary ingredients she holds up a fine ruddy tomato and says, "It's hard to make good marinara with the tomatoes in America. You can't taste the sun in them."
Taste the sun in them? I loved that. I wasn't sure then if she was literally translating a figure of speech from Italian or German into its approximate English equivalent, of if she just had a natural penchant for colloquial poetry. I suspect the latter, but would prefer the former - it's always amusing when the strange interior of a cliche familiar in one language is laid bare for speakers of a second. The French enjoy their "apples of the earth" while we eat potatoes; they talk of "All the world" when we mean "every body". If I had time right now, I'd list ten more, but....
This brings me to the impetus for this post. Last night while chatting with my Danish friend Karen, I noticed that Gmail now has a quick and dirty translation feature. If it detects any foreign phrases in your email, a button will pop up asking you if you'd like the text translated. After playing with this feature for a few minutes, I asked Karen to send me some figures of speech and axioms particular to the Danish language. She obliged, and sent this:
A. højt at flyve dybt at falde
B. æblet falder aldrig langt fra stammen
C. en fugl i hånden er bedre end ti på taget
D. når det regner på præsten så drypper det på degnen
E. ude godt men hjemme bedst
Google's little sensors perked up. "Looks like you've got some Dansk in this email. Would you like to translate it?" Why, yes Google, i would. Google spat this back:
A. high fly deep to fall
B. the apple never falls far from the trunk
C. a bird in hand is better than ten on the roof
D. when it rains on the priest so it drips on clerk
E. out good but home best
Sometimes a poorly translated phrase can be just as beautiful as a proper translation, but for different reasons. The accidental whimsy of this approach is not to be underestimated. Although this particular experiment didn't generate anything nearly as beautiful as "you can't taste the sun in these tomatoes," perhaps future attempts will be more, uh, fruitful.