No more money? No, just empty cardboard.

The English statement “The box was empty” was translated into Danish as “Kassen var tom”. While “Kasse” indeed means “a Box” in Danish, unfortunately the same word is also the word for a “Cash Register”. The Danish word for “Packaging” (Danish: “Emballage”) would be a more fortunate choice.

English ==> Danish
The box was empty ==>                 Kassen var tom
The cash register was empty ==>  Kassen var tom     (<== yes, it’s the same as above! 🙂 )
The packaging was empty ==>      Emballagen var tom

The consequence of sequence. And of getting married?…

Some times it seems so obvious and yet it isn’t . If A = A and B = B then AB should equal AB,-and maybe even AB = BA, and yet languages don’t work like that…
Sequence of words matters. And, to make matters more interesting, the way the sequence matters is different between languages.

For instance, in English a “Work of Art’ is not the same as “Artwork”. A “Work of Art’ is something bigger, while “Artwork” illustrates books and ornaments wall.

The respective words in Danish are “Kunst” (English: Art) and “Værk” (English: (Piece of) Work). So, yes, you guessed it right: “Artwork” does NOT translate into “Kunstværk” in Danish. “Kunstværk” is the proper translation of “Work of Art”, while “Artwork” in Danish is more properly translated as “Illustration”, and also the English Artwork is being used often “untranslated”.

English ==> Danish :
Artwork ==> Illustration, Artwork
Work of art ==> Kunstværk

Sequence matters. So does a space.
In Danish a Husband is “Ægtemand”, which must not be confused with “Ægte mand”…

Danish ==> English:
En ægtemand ==> Husband
En ægte mand ==> a real man

And while we’re on the topic of Marriage, in Danish the word for Poison and for “Being Married” are the same. I have no clever explanation, but I am sure you can easily make a few of your own… 🙂

Danish ==> English:
Gift (adjective) ==> Married
Gift (noun) ==> Poison
Gave (noun) ==> Gift

Dr. Livingstone, I prepose?

It can cause some interesting missteps when one “translates” a preposition exactly – and it’s used differently in the target language.

Few years ago I was visiting Denmark during summer and was talking to a Danish friend of mine on the phone, trying to convince him to meet me downtown Copenhagen for a cup of coffee on a Wednesday night. He was making excuses (in Danish) that he had to get up early next day for work, so the idea of staying up late on Wednesday night – even in my entertaining company-, was not too appealing to him. And then I said (in Danish): “How about Friday evening then? Then you can sleep-in the next morning…”. Some silence followed and my friend said with a very dry voice: “I hope not….”…

You see, when Danes take an “extra one on the eye” (En ekstra én på på øjet), i.e. stay longer in bed in the morning, that is called “at sove ud”, i.e. the preposition is “to sleep OUT”. When you “sleep IN” in Danish, “sover ind”, you have passed on, you are dead… 🙂

Similarly, in  a technical document yesterday, the English sentence “Choose from pictures…” was (mildly) wrongly translated as “Vælg fra billeder…”. In Danish “Vælg fra” means “say No to something”, or “pick away they ones you don’t like (like bad apples from good ones, for instance).” So the English sentence means “pick the ones you DO like”, while the Danish translation means “pick the ones you DON’T like”.
The way to fix it is with another preposition, “ud” (meaning “out”). “At vælge ud” is the inclusive way of chosing, while “at vælge fra” is the exclusive way of chosing.

So, two more correct translations might have been:
“Vælg ud fra billeder”(“Choose out from pictures”) or “Vælg ibland billeder” (“Choose from among pictures”)

Signing off here… (which is also tricky to translate. Danes “Sign OUT” not “off”)….
It’s good to know the difference between a PrEposition and a PrOposition 🙂 :


Have you heard of the Viking Sheikh?

Here are two words that really could be listed as each other’s proper translation in any English-Danish dictionary, but aren’t: (English) Ship <-> (Danish) Skab . “Skab” in Danish normally means”a closet” or “a cabinet”. i.e. a piece of furniture, -so nothing at all like a seafaring ship… What’s the connection?
As we all, and particularly linguists, know: “context is everything”, so, yes indeed a “ship” becomes equivalent to “a closet” when these two words appear not as standalone words, but as last syllables, or suffixes, of compound words indicating “something official”:

English ==> Danish:

Mayorship ==> Borgmesterskab
World Championship ==> Verdensmesterskab
Citizenship ==> Borgerskab
Leadership ==> Lederskab
Marriage ==> Ægteskab

I have an interesting theory about how this came about that a “Ship” became a “Closet”: I think the two words actually point back to a common Saxon ancestor-word from some 1300 years ago (say, around 700 AC), when the Viking Juts, Angles and Saxons came from what is today’s Denmark and occupied what is today England.

Whatever was spoken then must for a while have been the same language spoken on both sides of North Sea and then it gradually evolved differently into English on the left side of North Sea and Danish on the right side of that body of water:

It’s easy to imagine that both “-ship”  and “-skab” as suffixes have not much to do with their same-sounding stand-alone cousin words in both English and Danish, but rather both point back to a common ancestor-word signifying something official and authoritative. Something rather guttural in sound, as Danish still is today, where “h” and “k” sounded similar and so did “p” and “b”, and “a” and “e” were so flat, they could easily be mistaken for each other. So, probably something like “Skhaipb“, which then evolved into “-Ship” in  modern English and “-Skab” in modern Danish. And the old root-word signifying authority remains alive in the same word still present the same in both English and Danish: “Skipper“, i.e. the Man in Charge.

But wait then, what about the other word also present the same way in both modern English and modern Danish: “to Skip“? It seems paradoxical that “a Skipper” is someone in charge, who cares about details and deals with things, while “skipping” signifies the exactly opposite: to not care too much, to “touch and go”? I think this actually gives us another piece of the interesting historical puzzle of how Danish/English evolved from being the same into being different:

According to Wikipedia, the word “Skip” in old Norse actually meant what we today call a Ship. Knowing the shape of the Viking vessels suddenly it all makes perfect sense: the Vikings invent the shallow-bottomed vessels which sit so high in the water that they don’t cut through it, but rather “bump” or SKIP from wave top to wave top. So, SKIP was probably the first word. It meant “to avoid sinking to deep”, to  skip from plop to plop. Then the verb SKIP evolved into the noun SHIP as the art of skipping became signified by the vessels which moved forward in a SKIPPING way. Then Ships became very important as the Viking civilization evolved around the art of navigating the ships, so the words “Skhaipb” and “Skipper“, were derived from the word for Ship of yore to signify something official and important.
-And maybe, just maybe, the Arabs borrowed the word for an important man and made it into “Sheikh” – a Wise Man. As both archaeological finds and the great Hollywood movie “The 13th Warrior” with Antonio Banderas prove (OK, the latter may not be an entirely trustworthy historical source, but it sure is entertaining 🙂 ) there were widespread connections between the Arab and the Viking traders.

I am totally making this up, but it would be funny if some of this were true. We’ll never know 100%. It sure is fun to play Sherlock Homes, though, just by deducing how one word may lead to another….


The British are coming! The English is coming! Are you with?

“The British are coming!” is of course the famous line attributed to Paul Revere, one of the founding fathers of USA, best known for his “Midnight Ride” from Boston to Lexington on April 18, 1775. He was supposedly shouting “The British are coming!” to warn the rebel colonist forces of an impending attack by the British Redcoats. The line was immortalized, and apparently also made up, in a famous poem by Longfellow: “Paul Revere’s Ride“. “Made up” because historians are of the conviction that while the ride really occurred, the actual warning was most likely delivered in silence…

The “English is coming!” is my word-play on Paul Revere’s (or Longfellow’s) famous line. The English language and English words are of course sneaking their way into contemporary Danish vocabulary, both openly and silently. It’s no wonder in a country like Denmark, where upwards of 80% of Danes do, or think they do :-), speak fluent English. So, the English is coming inside Danish. Are you with?

“Are you with”: In Danish we often use the expression “Er du med?”, which correctly translated means “Do you follow me?”. Incorrect, verbatim translation is, however, “Are you with”. Yes, it is OK in Danish to end a sentence with a preposition. The trap, which many a Danish English-speaker has fallen into, is of course that the preposition rules are different in English and also that some times English has different words, when Danish has just one. In this case translating “med” with “along” rather than “with” would yield maybe not a 100% correct English, but at least something much closer to it. Are you along?

Any English-speaking visitor visiting Denmark today will be shocked by the prevalence of the fine English curse-word “F**ck”. It has sneaked its way in and it’s everywhere. Maybe you won’t see it written, but you’ll hear it used on TV, radio and pretty much everywhere interspersed into otherwise faultless Danish. This always reminds me of that general cultural observation that a curse in a foreign language is not really a curse. Even though most Danes speak and write English, it is NOT their primary language and therefore throwing in what just seems to be a funny-sounding foreign word, even though that word is not so nice in its original language, seems totally OK. I remember how in my youth in Denmark we used the funny sounding (to us) German word “gewesen” (=”has been”) to refer to anything we didn’t know the exact name of, sort of equivalent to the modern English slang words “do-hickey” and “whatchamacallit”…

So, some English words, like “f**ck”, silently sneak their way into Danish. Eventually some get accepted and become “official” Danish:

In my previous posting I mentioned the English word “to spend”, which does not have a direct equivalent in Danish. Well, a correction is needed and one that shows how it can be tricky when English words start appearing in Danish. “To spend” USED to NOT have a direct equivalent in Danish. Now it does have one. The official Danish vocabulary and spelling dictionary, Retskrivningsordbogen, now includes the word “spendere”, which is the “danish-ized” direct adaptation of “to spend”. Clearly, if we Danes know it exists in English and it covers an exact, useful concept, we want it too :-). The trickiness of “spendere” is that its meaning is ever so slightly, slightly different in Danish!:

  • “At bruge penge” means “to spend money” (in a serious way).
  • “At spendere penge”, however, has more of a wasteful connotation, closer to “to blow the money”.

Why? Here I have a theory: I think it’s because “at spendere” ends up sounding very close to the Danish verb “at spilde”, which means “to waste”. We store things in our brain by similarities, so that’s probably what colors the meaning of “at spendere” in Danish.

And of course one has to be careful with word-combinations and abstractization. Take the previously mentioned  “Spending Power”: the direct translation “Spenderingskraft” would still be meaningless in Danish. “Købekraft” is still correct.





Americans spend money, Danes use it

When you have money in your bank account, you have “Spending Power”. That is a power to spend (your money). Often used these days synonymously with “Account Balance”. On the other hand “The Power of Spending” is something else: it brings up a vision of the head-rush and ecstatic joy you feel, when you find exactly what you’ve been shopping for and are happy spending money on it.
Some times mistranslations are almost profound… In these economically challenging times we are of course all trying to save a dime or two, -and resist the power that a good shopping excursion has over us :-).

The English expression “Spending Power” was mistranslated as “Udgifternes Magt”, which means “The Power of Expenses” or “The Power of Spending”. The correct translation should be:

  • “Spending Power” ==> “Købekraft” (=Buying Power)

Also, as Americans are stereotyped as the #1 consumers in the world. while the Nordic Danes have more of a reputation for saving their dimes, it is interesting (profound?) to note that the English verb “to spend” has no direct equivalent in Danish!

When it comes to money we “use” it:

  • Spend Money ==> Bruge penge (=use money).

When it comes to days we spend them by using the (time-related) verb “Tilbringe”:

  • Spend the day ==> Tilbringe dagen (close to “Pass the day”).

But, of course, it is also possible to “use time” (=bruge tid).

Which all together, of course, is why sentences involving “spending” are difficult to get correct in Danish. We don’t have the word. Although I am sure we get the concept just fine 🙂

Danish translation: Exact: “Lad os tilbringe en times frokost sammen og bruge flere penge på frokost end vi tjener på en time”. Re-creating a wordplay: “Lad os bruge en times frokost på at bruge flere penge end vi tjener på en time”.

One word different. One is a classic. The other one, not so much. Neither one could have been written as well in Danish… 🙂 :


Difference between a “reason of”, a “reason for” and “reason” requires some reason

The English sentence “5 reasons to pay with PayPal” was translated as “5 årsager til at betale med PayPal”. This is wrong in an interesting way: The two English nouns “reason” and “cause” will probably appear in most English synonym dictionaries side-by-side as synonyms. Yet, they are subtly different and the difference is not easily seen in the stand-alone word, but in the preposition that follows.

In English there can be a “cause of” or a “cause for”. In Danish we have two different words for that:

A reason FOR something to happen, or a cause FOR something happening (or shortened: A reason TO do something) is in Danish “en grund”. This is, loosely speaking, an answer to “WHY (something is happening)”.

However, a cause OF something happening is in Danish “en årsag”. Again, loosely speaking, this is “WHAT (has caused the event)”. Interestingly, “cause’s” English synonym “reason” is rarely used with the preposition OF.

a cause of  ==> en årsag
a cause for, reason for, reason to ==> en grund

The correct translation of the English sentence “5 reasons to pay with PayPal” is therefore “5 grunde til at betale med PayPal”.

There’s another interesting quirk with “reason”:

“Reason” without an “a” in front (because it’s not countable) is something else than “A Reason”. This “Reason” is synonymous with “Wisdom”:

Reason (noun, no plural) ==> Fornuft (noun, no plural)

It’s an interesting observation for me, and for machines trying to translate, that some words do NOT get an  ‘a’ or a “the” in front and that that can make such a difference in meaning…

To complete this, let’s look at the same-sounding verbs:

To reason ==> at argumentere, at ræsonnere, at fornuftiggøre, at tænke
To cause ==> at forårsage, at forvolde, at skyldes

José Andersen. Olé!

Here’s a little funny Danish-Spanish translation-quirk, I heard in Denmark last week: My friend Nils is married to a lovely Spanish woman from Andalucia, so most summers they go with the kids from Denmark to Spain to visit the Spanish side of the family. This summer, somehow, Nils was talking to a Spanish family member about, as he is known in the English-speaking world, Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish fairy-tale writer. Now, in Denmark we all know him as just H. C. Andersen. That uniquely identifies Him, as otherwise there are so many Hans-Christians running around Denmark. So, we Danes NEVER refer to the famous author by his full name. Just H.C. However, some times we forget that the rest of the world knows him only by his full name…

The two initials, H. C., are pronounced in Danish as “Ho-See”. So, when my friend Nils asked his Spanish family member about his knowledge of  H. C. Andersen, the family member answered perplexed: “Sorry, I don’t think I know any José Andersen”…

Dinglish: Ass

“Dinglish” is the loving description of the quirky “language” that emerges when Danish and English get mixed up.

There is nothing wrong with this price tag in Danish. “Ass” is a commonly used shortening of the word “assorterede” [English: mixed]. So what is offered here is a mixed selection of greeting cards @ DKR 19.95 each.

But it does look a little funny to the English-speaker… 🙂

It is not easy to give and receive. A receipt without a receipt is still a receipt.

The English word “receipt” can cause confusion because both the act of receiving something, as well as the piece of paper which you sign, and get to keep a copy of, as proof of you receiving something, are both called the same: “a receipt”. We have two words for that in Danish: “kvittering” is the piece of paper, and “modtagelse” is the act of receiving.

The sentence “Thank you for contacting us about your non-receipt claim”  was translated as if it was a matter of not having a receipt, when actually it was referring to not receiving an ordered item. [Was: ”Tak, fordi du kontaktede PayPal om dit krav uden kvittering.” Should be: ”Tak, fordi du kontaktede PayPal ang. dit krav om ikke-modtagelse.”]

The English word ”distribution” can both refer to a scattered pattern in a geometrical space, as well as the act of paying out dividends and such, or transporting goods from a central storage location to a number of smaller locations. We largely use the same word, “distribution”, in the very same way in Danish, however, we also have a Danish word “fordeling”, which should only be used for describing a (distribution) pattern. Similarly, a “return” can in English both mean a dividend or a profit made, -or an item simply being returned.

The sentence “The statement shows the part of the distribution that is nontaxable because it is a return of your cost (or other basis)” was translated as if it was a static pattern yielding a dividend, when in fact it talks about a monetary payout which simply returns money that you originally put in yourself: Was translated into Danish: ”Opgørelsen viser den del af fordelingen, der ikke er skattepligtig, fordi det er et afkast af dine omkostninger (eller andet grundlag)”. It should be: ”Opgørelsen viser den del af distributionen, der ikke er skattepligtig, fordi det er en tilbagebetaling af dine omkostninger (eller andet grundlag)”.

The English word ”disbursement” is old fashioned. Of course, a localization effort always strives to keep the language tone modern and contemporary. The difficulty arose when we had to differentiate in Danish between “disbursement”, “payout”, “distribution”, “withdrawal”. We run out of “contemporary” Danish equvalents… Many Danes will not be familiar with the word “udlodning”, but that seems to be the proper 1:1 translation of “disbursement”. It’s old fashioned, too.