A story about history

The web brings with it many changes. Some times new words have appeared and entered the mainstream. In Danish the noun “Historik” (English: list of historical events, activity record) is such a relatively new addition to the vocabulary. While English has not chosen to distinguish between “History”, as taught in school, and “History”, as a record of your, say, historical activity on the web, Danes have.
In Danish your online history is “Historik”.

If a translation between English and Danish misses the correct word, things can quickly become funny, as both in English and Danish “History” has different double meanings:

In English there’s “History” (without a pronoun, or maybe with a “the” in front), which is what we learn about the Romans and the Incas in school, and there’s also “a history” which is what you get when you’ve been dating the wrong people.

In Danish “Historie” (without a pronoun) is what we learn in school. “En historie”, on the other hand, is a story. Often used to describe an unbelievable tale that your kid or lover may use to explain some strange coincidences of facts…

Thus I laughed when the following came across my desk:

Addition of a selection of payment methods also allows you to establish a successful selling history at the same time as you conduct business.  ==> Tilføjelse af flere betaligsmetoder giver dig også mulighed  for at etablere positive salgshistorier medens du sælger.

In English the Danish translation above means that you can establish some positive tales about your sales :-). The correct translation should have been: “Tilføjelse af flere betalingsmetoder giver dig samtidig mulighed for at opbygge en positiv salgshistorik medens du sælger.”

English ==> Danish:
(The) History  ==> Historie(n)
(A) History   ==> (En) Fortid, Ry, Omdømme
A Story   ==> En Historie
Online History   ==> Historik

4162010103910AM_history History Titanic

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..





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…


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

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… 🙂 :


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”…

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.

“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: http://lakjer.dk/erik/engelsk/enidiomstb.html . 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: http://da.wikiquote.org/wiki/Danske_ordsprog
and a corresponding one of English proverbs in English: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/English_proverbs

Arbeit macht rewards

“How rewards work” was translated to “Sådan belønnes arbejde” , meaning: “This is how work is rewarded”.  Which brings up some eerie associations with the signs that used to adorn the entrances to Nazi concentration camps… 🙁
This again is an instance of a translation ambiguity starting with English having exactly the same word for the verb and the noun, here: “Reward”. Interestingly enough, in this case we DO have a similar pairing in Danish with the verb “belønne” and the noun “belønning”, except the latter is a bit old-fashioned and not used in context with modern-day Credit Card rewards programs and such. In modern Danish we use the verb “belønner” with the nouns “bonusprogram” or “præmieprogram”. So, a good translation would be: “Sådan virker bonusprogrammet”.

A domestic relations matter is not the opposite of a foreign relations matter (in this case)

The “domestic relations matter” in the sentence “Except as expressly permitted in writing, Reward Points and awards are not transferable or assignable under any circumstances, including (i) upon death, (ii) as part of a domestic relations matter, or (iii) otherwise by operation of law.”  was translated as the opposite of “foreign relations matter”, which it obviously also can be, however not in this case, where it actually refers to a divorce and such. Probably formulating the English sentence as “…(ii) as part of a divorce settlement or property division…” would have been significantly better.

So, the translation became “Medmindre det udtrykkeligt er tilladt skriftligt af banken, kan præmiepoint og bonusser ikke overføres eller tildeles under nogen omstændigheder, herunder ved (i) død, (ii) som en del af nationale forhold, eller (iii) ellers i kraft af loven.”
It should have been: “…(ii) som følge af skilsmisse eller ejendomsfordeling,…”