That’s why he said “I have a dream” and not “I have vision”….

There’s a famous Danish sketch (in Danish) from 1964 called “Skolekammerater”, [English: “(High)school buddies”] in which two middle-aged men meet on the street, recognize each other as former high school mates and for about 5 minutes reminisce about their joint heroics in high school… Along the way they have slightly different recollections of the various events, which makes the whole sketch funny, until they finally realize, that while their high school experiences were similar, they actually weren’t joint, as they did not go to the same school and actually never met before… Or as they summarize it themselves in the final moments: “By Golly, then we aren’t even us!”… 🙂

I am reminded of this when I come across some words that are spelled the same or similarly in both English and Danish and look as if they came out of the same “school” – but yet have a different meaning in each language.

One such word is “Vision”. In English it is the ability of our eyes to see. In Danish that is called “Syn”. But the word “Vision” also exists in Danish and is equivalent to English “A vision”, i.e. an ability to see something that isn’t there.

English –> Danish:
Vision –> Syn
A vision –> En vision

“Refusion”  is another tricky one. Ask an English-speaking Dane, like me, to translate the meaning of “Refusion” into Danish and you’ll probably get that it either means something synonymous to “a Denial”, someone saying “No!”, or a repetition of a “fusion”-process in which metals or atoms are melted together. In Danish, however, “Refusion” actually means “a Refund (of your money)”.  But then it turns out trickier than even that: I looked up the English definition of the word “Refusion” and to my surprise it turns out that my Danish language-mind got the best of me. I thought “Refusion” was what happened in English when someone refused something. That is not correct. The act of refusing is called “A Refusal” in English… I wonder how many Danes reading this made the same mistake at first read-through?

Refusion–>Re-fusion or refusion

[Sorry, dear reader, you will not get a refund for the time we’ve spent together here. Hopefully none is needed. 🙂 ]

The reassuring thing is: A spade is still a spade in both languages!…well…mostly…unless you’re referring to the playing card color! 🙂

A Spade (digging utensil, not a shovel)–>En Spade
Spades (card color ) –> Spar
A Spade (a card of that color ) –> En Spar




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

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 🙂 :


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

The meaning of life?… no deal. But a great deal of Saxons and Normans. Deal with it.

“Are you looking for a great deal?”, (i.e. “Are you looking for a bargain”), was translated as “Leder du efter en hel del?” which means “are you looking for a lot (of things)?”, which turns a simple sentence about a possible bargain to an almost profound-sounding quest for the meaning of a life.  [Should have been translated as: Leder du efter et godt tilbud?].
In this context it is interesting how “deal” in English can both mean “an amount” and “a bargain” leaving “a great deal” utterly ambigous, unless put in context. I have a theory about how this came about!
Most of us have seen Robin Hood in one incarnation or another on a TV or a movie screen. What is not clear from pretty much all adaption of the tale is that the Normans and the Saxons, the two parties to the pivotal 13th century conflict at the center of Robin Hood’s saga, did NOT both speak the same language, English, as the movies will have us believe. The conquering Normans, in fact, spoke French!
England remained a bi-lingual place for centuries thereafter with the commoners speaking Anglo-Saxon and the ruling classes Norman-French. The great impact of this, which we still carry with us in English to this day, is that in legal English we have the tradition of carrying both the Saxon and and the Norman words. Things like “Cease and desist”, “Null and void”, “Devise and bequeath”, “Last will and testament” are actually nothing else than repetitions of the same meaning, two synonyms, with two different words: one Saxon word (closest to German today), and one Norman word (closest to French today).
“And how does this relate to the two meanings of  the word “deal”, then?”, you might ask. Well, here’s my theory: another effect of the Saxon-Norman duality is that two entirely different-meaning, but similar-sounding, words from the two origins have become the same word (with dual meanings) in modern English. I think that “deal”, when meaning “amount, part”, is the English-spelled version of the modern German word “Teil”, meaning “Part, divide”. This meaning of “Deal” is also present in the verb “to deal” when it refers to cards in  a poker game. On the other hand, “deal”, when it means “trade, commerce”, comes from the French “commerce de détail”, which also has been twisted into “retail” in English. This meaning of deal is present in the verb “to deal (with it)” when it refers to a setback in life, i.e. try to make commerce out of something bad.
Now, wasn’t that interesting? Suddenly lingustics is like historical detective work…. 🙂

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.

To withdraw and to lift. In Danish it’s the same word

In an earlier posting I wrote about how the verb “Charge” in English is synonymous with “adding to” when we are talking about a car battery, but means the opposite, “taking from”, when we are talking about a credit card. Danish has its own quirky word with two similarly polar opposite meanings, depending on context. The word is “at hæve”.

When talking about a bank account, “hæve” means “to withdraw”:

“I withdrew $200 from my checking account” ==> “Jeg hævede 200 USD fra min checkkonto”.

But when talking about a limit or limitation, “hæve” means “to raise” or “to lift”:

“We must raise the minimum wage by $2/hour” ==> “Vi bør hæve minimumslønnen med 2 USD per time”

So, then of course it gets very tricky if the English sentence at hand involves BOTH a bank account and a limitation:

“Your account has a negative balance. Raise your account balance (to zero or any positive amount)” . If translated as “Din konto har en negativ saldo. Hæv din saldo (til nul eller et positivt beløb)” it could be misunderstood in Danish (particularly without the words in parenthesis) as leading to the illogical conclusion that you should withdraw more money from your account, which is already overdrawn.

Probably better to translate into Danish with one of the unambigous synonyms for “increase:” (“øg” or “løft”), such as: ” Din konto har en negativ saldo. Øg din saldo (til nul eller et positivt beløb)”.

And this idea of “withdrawing money to raise money” reminds me of the following bar trick (it helps if some alcohol has been consumed):
“Hey, may I borrow two dollars from you?”, “Sure!”, “Great, but I only need one right now. I may need the second one later, OK?”, “OK”
Little later…
“Hey can I have the dollar back that I lent you?”, “What are you talking about?”, “The dollar that you borrowed from me…”, “Oh that one… Listen, remember I wanted to borrow TWO dollars from you?”, “Yeah…”, “So, you only gave me one, so I owe you one, and you still owe me one, right?”, “Yeah, I guess…, “So, if I owe you one and you owe me one, we are even, right?!” , “I guess…”, “Now buy me a drink!…” 🙂

“Close, but no cigar” in Danish?

The word “Close” is hard to translate without context.
In English it can mean both to shut something down, be near something or someone, or to successfully finish a sales negotiation. Of course this opens up a plethora of pitfalls for the diligent linguist/translator, even in-context:

“Close the deal!” was translated as “Luk handlen!”, which can be understood as “Shut down the business!”. 🙂 It should have been something like “Få Ordren!” or “Luk salget!” (i.e. “Get the Order!”).

“As close as you can” was translated as “luk det så godt som du kan” (“close it as well as possible”). The correct translation would be “så tæt på som muligt”.

“It is close to my heart” ==> “det er mit hjerte nær”. Interestingly when we go “poetic” in Danish we like to reverse the word sequence. Saying “det er nær mit hjerte” would be a geographic description of something located near my heart, with no emotional content.

Close, but no cigar!
And what about “Close, but no cigar!”: what would be a good translation of this Idiom into Danish? Maybe “Lige ved og næsten slår ingen mand af hesten”? (“Close-to and almost does not knock any man off his horse”).
Erik Moldrup has compiled a very impressive list of English-to-Danish idiom translations at: . But “Close, but no cigar” is not amongst them. Ahem… close, but no cigar…  🙂 I will ask him for advice.
There’s also an impressive list of Danish proverbs with explanations (in Danish) at:
and a corresponding one of English proverbs in English:

Now, now… you can relax, but not now

If the Danish prince Hamlet gave the English language the immortal sentence: “To be or not to be?”, so does modern-day English give us the wonder of “Now, know that first now is not the same as the last now, you know?”. Behold now, honored reader:

In the English sentence “Now, follow these steps to confirm your bank account” the word “now” actually does not mean “now” as in “this very instance”. It’s a filler-word more meant as a gentle nudge, or pause in speech, and synonymous (in this context only) with words as “next” or “please”. Or, another way to look at the uniqueness of this “now” is to realize that while the sentence above sounds pleasant and non-alarming, removing the comma and moving the “now” couple of places to the right results in the sentence “Follow these steps now to confirm your bank account”, which obviously expresses more of an urgency and somewhat of an alarm. And, interestingly enough, placing the “now” at the very end of the sentence further enhances the sense of urgency: “Follow these steps to confirm your bank account, now”.

And, of course, we have to note then in this context that in Danish, “now” does not have a double-life as as a filler-word. For Danes “now” means -ahem- now. Starting a sentence with “now” causes a sense of urgency in a Danish reader, so a direct translation of the original sentence with a leading “now”, would convey in this case the meaning but not exactly the spirit of it. In Danish, we have two words at our disposal: “Nu” means “now” (as in “this moment in time”). “Nuvel” is the Danish word we use, when we need a filler-word to let our mouth continue, while our brain pauses. It more or less is equivalent to the English “well, now..”.

And a propos, there was a very famous Danish radio- and tv-personality who so abused the word “now” in his live radio transmissions starting with the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and all the way through 40s, 50, 60s, 70 and 80s, that the Danish word for “now” (Nu) was forever ‘added’ to his name as little gentle mockery and a Danish sign of respect (Danes, being generally reserved and easygoing people, are not very good at direct praise 🙂 ). Gunnar “Nu” Hansen (1905-1993).
And since he could talk and talk (which of course you had to be able to do as a sportsradio reporter) also a line of licorice flavored throat lozenges was named in his honor: Nu Sportspastiller. His picture was on the outside and a collectable picture of a Danish soccer-star was always inside. The line of lozenges was discontinued in 1977.