April 14, 2006

My name is Hare and I know nothing

A happy Pesach, Paschal Triduum and Easter for all who celebrate. Here's an Easter-related translational oddity just in time for Holy Week.

I've installed antivirus software from Avira, a German company, and I have no complaints about its general usefulness. Occasionally, though, I get pop-up messages suggesting I upgrade from AntiVir Classic to AntiVir Premium. The latest such exhortation, using Eastertime as its "hook," came across as utterly bizarre in its English rendering:

"Now there's the rub", ...

... is still a quite usual comment of some users, although spyware programs already represent a common danger — not only during the Easter time.

We recommend you to cock your ears and protect yourself straight at Easter — with AntiVir PersonalEdition Premium — and spyware won't give you a clip round the ears.

I'm used to seeing strange English on the Web (and in my email spam-trap), but this one had an intriguing mixture of wildly off-the-mark idioms that seemed to have nothing to do with the ad's Easter theme. So I tracked down the original German version on Avira's website:

"Mein Name ist Hase, ...

... ich weiß von nichts", sagt immer noch mancher Anwender trotz der Gefahren, die von Spyware-Programmen ausgeht. Und das nicht nur zur Osterzeit. Kein Wunder, wenn sich diese ungebetenen Gäste dann auf dem Rechner ungestört breit machen können.

Besser, Sie wissen Bescheid und ziehen Spyware-Eindringlingen die Löffel lang - mit der AntiVir PersonalEdition Premium. Am besten gleich zu Ostern.

Now it started to become clear what was going on. The German copywriter was attempting a visual pun, linking the Easter bunny (Osterhase) in the animated graphic with the idiomatic expression Mein Name ist Hase, ich weiß von nichts ("My name is Hare and I know nothing"). Then whoever was charged with creating the English copy must have misread a dictionary of idioms and selected "Now there's the rub" as the English equivalent, even though that has nothing to do with the profession of ignorance in the original expression.

Since I'm not proficient in German, my initial search on the Mein Name ist Hase saying only traced it back to a 1971 hit song by Chris Roberts. I suspected it was older than that, so I called upon a good friend of Language Log — the masterfully multlingual Chris Waigl (author of the Diacritiques blog and keeper of the Eggcorn Database). Chris was as enlightening as always:

Yes, it's a visual pun. The saying/quote "Mein Name ist Hase" is much older, though, and an amusing bit of pop cultural history. The legend goes (and the Duden accepts this as at least not totally off the wall) that in 1854 a fraternity comrade of the Heidelberg student Victor von Hase, son of the theologian and church historian Karl von Hase and originally from Jena, killed someone in a duel and fled, using von Hase's student ID papers. When he was caught and brought to court in Strasbourg, Karl von Hase was prosecuted for assisting a fugitive. When he was summoned before the court, he is said to have given the following statement "Mein Name ist Hase. Ich verneine alle Gegenfragen. Ich weiß von nichts." (Free translation: "My name is Hase. I refuse all cross-examination. I don't know anything about this." Usually quoted without the middle sentence as "Mein Name ist Hase, ich weiß von nichts," or even just as "Mein Name ist Hase.")

You'd be unlikely to find "Mein Name ist Hase ..." employed as a straightforward profession of ignorance. There has to be at least a little bit of self-irony or jocularity in it. While searching for the exact wording I got reminded that the Bugs Bunny animated clips used to be broadcast in German under the title "Mein Name ist Hase". I was as addicted to them as any child my age, but didn't remember.

So to sum up, the German original has a pun based on the Easter Bunny on the one hand (OsterhaseHase (der) is hare, actually, while rabbit is Kaninchen (das), but that's not true for the Osterhase) — and the von Hase quote (or the saying derived from it) on the other. Which the translation just drops, and thereby creates some major weirdness in English.

And what about the final bit of weirdness, the "clip around the ears" idiom? Chris explains that this involves a second pun in the German original: die Löffel lang ziehen, literally meaning "pull the [rabbit's] spoons." Rabbit ears are called Löffel in German, alluding to their spoon-like shape. So "give a clip round the ears" does actually bear some resemblance to the original German idiom, but of course the whole point of the pun is waylaid in the translation. Nonetheless, the English copywriter has inserted yet another "ear" idiom ("cock your ears") for good measure.

Mulling over this train wreck of a translation I started to wonder if the whole thing might have been intentional. After all, if the English copy had been unremarkable, I would probably have treated the pop-up as as a minor irritation and closed the window at once. Instead, here I am spending a great deal of time trying to make sense of the eccentric English. I don't know if the ad will move many copies of the premium antivirus software, but it certainly got my attention.

(This is all reminiscent of that classic work of unintentional cross-linguistic humor: English As She Is Spoke, an 1855 English phrasebook for Portuguese students credited to José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino. It was long assumed that the two authors wrote the book without actually knowing any English or having access to a Portuguese-English dictionary. Instead, the story went, they tried to craft the phrasebook from a Portuguese-French dictionary and a French-English dictionary with predictably preposterous results. As it turns out, José da Fonseca was an accomplished scholar of languages who published perfectly competent French-English and Portuguese-French phrasebooks. Pedro Carolino apparently pirated Fonseca's Portuguese-French phrasebook by translating the French parts into English and then published the work with both of their names on it. The true story, told here and here, was uncovered after the publication of the Collins Library edition in 2002, with sleuthing done by Alex MacBride, then a grad student in linguistics at UCLA.)

[Related posts:

The bird clapper: a new tool in semiconductor fabrication (2/8/04)
Never pronouncing East Thursday? (2/6/05)
Tong-maker the Kong-maker, and other translational follies (2/2/06)
Engrish explained (3/11/06) ]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 14, 2006 01:43 PM