Sex and drugs – but not Rock’n Roll… (have many synonyms)

On my most recent visit to Denmark a Danish friend, knowing my passion for languages, asked me the strange question: “have you ever seen a dictionary with comments?”. Then he proceeded to show me what he meant. He looked-up the word for “prostitute” in the Danish-Portuguese dictionary, he had on his book shelf. The Portuguese alternatives filled something like 4 columns and the plethora of synonyms was rounded off with a comment (in Danish) by the author: “Ja, det kære barn har mange navne…” (“Yes, the sweet child has many names…”).

And so it seems, that every language is particularly fond of synonyms for sex and drugs -(but for some reason not for Rock’n Roll… 🙂 ). The Danish language is no exception.

The common expression for being drunk in DANISH is “at være fuld”, which actually literally means “to be full”. So, when Danes are “full”, they are full of liquor, and when the English-speakers are “full”, they are full with food. This has caused many a translation SNAFU 🙂

English ==> Danish:
To be full (e.g. a container) ==> at være fuld (for eksempel en beholder)
To be full (from eating food) ==> at være mæt
To be drunk ==> at være fuld.

Here’s another one: An English synonym for being drunk is “to be intoxicated”. Danes use the more innocuous word “påvirket”, which literally means “affected”. So, it was funny today, when a computer-service related English message about “affected users” was translated using the word “påvirket”, which unfortunately made it sound like those users were intoxicated:

English ==> Danish:
“The backup service was under maintenance. 40% of users were affected” ==>
Not the best: “Sikkerhedskopieringstjenesten blev vedligeholdt. 40% af brugerne påvirkedes/var påvirkede” (Can be mis-understood in Danish as “40% of users were intoxicated” 🙂 )
Better: “Sikkerhedskopieringstjenesten blev vedligeholdt. 40% af brugerne blev berørt”.

Lastly, when referring to drugs, Danes use the word “stoffer”, which in Danish is also synonymous with “fabrics”, like the ones used to sew a coat or make a quilt. My Danish girlfriend fondly remembered the time when, going on a longer trip with her mother, both were happy that they were going to be “stoffri” for a while. What they meant was that, being dedicated quilters, they were going to be away from cutting and sawing fabrics for a while. This was funny in Danish, because the expression “stoffri” generally means that someone is “drug-free”, fresh out of rehab…

And by the way, I also learned that both in English and in Danish a “quilt” and a “kilt” are NOT the same thing. It’s a Quilt on the left and a Kilt on the right. You’re welcome!…:

A Quilt and a KiltQuilting!!

You got your uppers, your downers…


Don’t get me started… No, wait… do!

Behold these two straightforward English sentences describing a system status:

“Maintenance – started at 9:30…”
“A problem – started at 9:30…”

Nothing seemingly “wrong” there… And yet there is a hidden issue which became apparent once the Danish translation surfaced.

You see the two English “started”-words are not 100% the same and the difference is best seen when switching to past tense: while we can say both “Maintenance – WAS started at 9:00” and “Maintenance – HAS started at 9:00”, the same symmetry does not apply to “an Error”: we can NOT say in English “Error – WAS Started at 9:00”, we can only say “Error – HAS started at 9:00”. This has to do with the strange nature of an error, we can not say about it that it actively “was started” (here “started” is practically an adverb, describing “was”). An error will typically occur by itself and we can just note a time when it has started (this “started” is a verb, past tense).

In Danish the difference between the two meanings is more visible, as the various cases actually get different word-endings:

English ==> Danish:
was started                 ==> blev startet, startedes
has started                  ==> har startet
started (verb)              ==> startede
started (adverb)          ==> startet

So, in Danish we can not use the (original) translation-pair:

Wrong Danish:
“Vedligeholdelse – startet kl. 9.00…”
“En fejl – startet kl. 9.00…”

The correct translation is:

Correct Danish:
“Vedligeholdelse – startede kl. 9.00…”
“En fejl – startede kl. 9.00…”

funny-pictures-the-dog-started-it1 imagesCAYRGLFF

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 🙂 :


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.



Three little words in English often become two (little bigger) words in Danish. Thankfully, “I love you” is still “Jeg elsker dig”.

A wonderful thing about Danish language is how we make two words that belong together into one word. Some times we don’t even hesitate to smoosh three of them together.

That means that three-word constructions which can seem ambigous in English, are not at all ambigous in Danish – assuming, that is, that it’s the correct two words that are paired together! 🙂

So, for example, a “Mobile Snow Plow” should become the equivalent of “Mobile SnowPlow” in Danish. Obviously, a “MobileSnow Plow” is the incorrect and quirky cousin of that.

Here are some of such wrongful two-out-of-three word-pairings that came across my desk in recent weeks:

Recurring Payment Profile ==> was translated as if the “Recurring” was referring to the “Profile” and not the “Payment”. I corrected in Danish to “Profile for Recurring Payments”. So: (wrong) Tibagevendende betalingsprofil ==> (correct) Profil for tilbagevendende betalinger, or (also correct, but clunky) Tilbagevendendebetalingsprofil.

“Pending Payment Balance ” was translated as if Pending was referring to Balance and not Payment: (wrong) Afventende betalingssaldo ==> (correct) Saldo for afventende betalinger.

“Mobile Shopping Cart Payment Received” was translated as if the Payment was the one being mobile and not the Shopping Cart: (wrong) Mobil indkøbskurvsbetaling modtaget ==> (correct) Mobil-indkøbskurvsbetaling modtaget, or (better) Betaling for mobil indkøbskurv er modtaget.

“Redemption Code Reversal” was mistranslated as if Redemption was synonymous with Reversal: (wrong) Tilbageførsel af tilbagekøbskode ==> (correct) Tilbageførsel af indløsningskode.

“Canceled Sales Report” was translated as if the Report was cancelled, rather than as “a report about canceled sales”: (wrong) Annuleret salgsrapport ==> (correct) Rapport over annulerede salg.

Did I mention that Google Translate gets many of these 3-word puzzles wrong?

To have and have not. What’s that got to do with a garden?

Of course Danish and English language share similar roots, not the least because around the year 500 the British Isles were occupied by the Vikings. The fact that, since then, the two languages have taken different paths, means that some times words seem the same or similar in both languages and yet the meanings are different.
I am often reminded of this when I see a mention of “Tivoli Garden” in Copenhagen. When Danes use the word “Garden” it does not mean the same as in English. In Danish “Tivoli Garden” is the marching band of guards  which entertains the park guests. “Tivoli Garden” is called in Danish “Tivoli Haven”.

Here’s some quirky words that are the same yet different in the two languages:


at hæve ==> to withdraw, to raise
at have ==> to have
en have ==> a garden
garden ==> the guard squadron
en garder ==> a (single) guard
en gartner ==> a gardener
“en garde!”==> French. Used to warn a fencer to assume the preparatory position for a match.

Google Translate for Danish <-> English has an Easter Egg

An “Easter Egg” in the digital world is a quirky, hidden behavior hidden inside an application or a website, which can be brought to life when some secret  key sequence or mouse movement is entered. The clever programmers at Google have created so many of them that a whole WikiPedia page is dedicated to them. I found one in Google Translate. Chosing the English-Danish translation one gets:  swipe a credit card ==> knalde et kreditkort. And even the reverse works too (knalde et kreditkort ==> Swipe a credit card). The problem is that “knalde” has absolutely nothing to do with swiping in Danish. It means something like “smash” and is more generally used as the common description of what people do when they make children…