The Gene Genie

The English sentence said “To generate a one-time passcode, please follow these steps…”, which was translated as “For at genere en engangsadgangskode følg venligst følgende trin…” . The problem here is a simple typographical error. Two Danish words look very much alike, but do not mean the same.

Danish ==> English:
At genere ==> To annoy
At generere => To generate

So the Danish sentence above means something to the extent of “In order to annoy a one-time passcode, please follow these steps…” 🙂

But that’s not the only problem with Danish “gene”…

English has the antonyms “Advantage” and “Disadvantage”. In German there is “Voorteil” and “Nachteil”. Basically, just from looking at these words, it is obvious that they are somehow related. Danish is, however, quirky in this department. Even Danes scratch their heads about this one ( . Funny!). You see, in Danish the word for Advantage is “Fordel”, which, like in German, is a combination of “for” (English: for, in favor)  and “del” (English: part). The opposite of “Fordel” in Danish is “Gene” or “Ulempe” . There is a fine word “Bagdel”, but that, -to the bemusement and puzzlement of Danes-, means “buttocks, the behind”… Drumroll, please!…. 🙂

Shape up your butt! :) The Jean Genie


It’s not a Meg. It’s a mess.

My female Danish friend got an interesting hair cut. In places it looks like a bird’s nest. In other places it looks like a sexy Meg Ryan-style “Sleepless in Seattle” hairdo. Definitely has to be combed carefully to prevent it from looking too unkempt. Of course, according to this hilarious blog by “Copenhannah” about “How to look like a Dane“, unkempt looking hair is the epitome of looking like a true Dane… 🙂
Now, in Danish we have the words:

Danish ==> English:
en redelighed –> a mess
en rede –> a nest
at rede hår–> to comb hair
at rede seng –> to make the bed
at redde–> to save
rødder –> roots
rød –>red

Which caused my friend to utter this unique sentence in Danish:

“Man kan jo se mine røde rødder. Det er en redelighed. Jeg bliver nødt til at rede mit hår for at redde det fra at se ud som en rede.”

(English: “You can see my red roots. This is mess. I have to comb my hair to save it from looking like a nest.”)

This is a good Meg Ryan do.

This is a good Meg Ryan do.

Some times you can overdo the do.

Some times you can overdo the do.


Don't do this Meg Ryan do. It's more of a doo-doo..

Don’t do this Meg Ryan do. It’s more of a doo-doo..





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




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

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 🙂 :


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

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…. 🙂