Friday, October 28, 2011

Translation Problems - Thailand's Flood "Holidays"

Translation from one language to another is complicated. Many words don't translate exactly.

  • A word in one language may not exist in another language.  In German, for instance,  there is a formal and informal word for "you"  (Sie and Du.)  You address people close to you with Du, and use Sie for others.  If you use 'you' in a translation, English language readers won't immediately catch the nature of the relationship the way a German would.  (Germans today are more casual about using Du than they were in the past.)
  • A word in one language may have a totally different implication because the cultural context is so different.  "Dan wei" is usually translated from Mandarin into English as "Work unit." When I spent some time in China in the early 90s a "dan wei" was not merely a place where you worked, but a place that pretty much defined your whole life - where you lived, where your kids went to school, how you got your food and other goods, and even whether you could get permission to get married.  Translating that as 'work unit' into English simply didn't carry all that meaning for readers unfamiliar with the cultural context.   
  • And words often have overlapping meanings;  if you look up a foreign word in the dictionary and there are several choices in your language, you may pick the wrong word.  That seems to have happened in this headline below.

The headline at ThaiVisa was:

Thailand declares holidays to cope with flood crisis

BANGKOK, October 25, 2011 (AFP) - Thailand on Tuesday declared a three-day holiday in Bangkok and other flood-affected areas as high tides are forecast to flow up the city's main river and worsen floods creeping into the city.
ThaiVisa is a website for ex-pats living in Thailand.  Some of those commenting responded to the word 'holidays' by making snide comments about the Thai government:
"Only in thailand do they call disaster a holiday,,,land of smiles"
"a 5 day holiday is just what the people need
No food on the store shelves
No money in the bank machines" 
Companies and the economy is falling to pieces as we struggle to keep things going despite the chaos around us
Maybe Yingluck needs a holiday! The rest of us have to work to fix the mess they make... "

It's easy to be smug and put down others.  Often it reflects more on the speaker than on the object of derision. [So, one might ask, am I putting down those commenters?  Perhaps one could read it that way, though my intent is to give an example of translation problems and where they can lead. But perhaps I'm not completely innocent here myself.]
The word the Thai government probably used was วันหยุด (wan yut.) This means, literally, 'day' + 'stop'.   It's commonly used to mean a day off, a day when you don't work.  One might say, "Let's go out Tuesday because it is 'wan yut.'"   It could be a holiday, it could be a day after exams and there are no classes, or it could be an emergency.  A day off.

It's an appropriate word to use in Thai for this instance.  They were stopping business as usual. If they explicitly wanted to say holiday or festival day they could have used วันฉลอง (wan chalaawng) which means, literally, 'day' + 'festival'. (I double checked my Thai at

Meanwhile, Friends of Thailand, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer group, is accepting donations that will go to the Thai Red Cross for flood victims.  If you'd like to help out, go to the Friends of Thailand website and in the lower left is a donate button.  Carolyn who runs the group asks that after you donate
". . . you send me an E-Mail message saying you have made a donation to Thai Flood Relief. The E-Mail address is: email carolynnickels[AT]" ;
3. As I receive notice of your donations from Google and your messages, I will send you a thank you letter you can use for your 2011 Federal, State and Local tax returns
4. At the end of two weeks, I will send the full amount the FoT Community has donated to the Thai Embassy with a list of donor names
5. The Embassy will immediately send the funds to Thailand via diplomatic pouch as they have been doing since the crisis began
6. Upon arrival in Bangkok, they will immediately transfer the money to the Thai Red Cross, which they have been doing with donations since the crisis began"
 Nothing is guaranteed perfect when you donate, but this is probably as reliable as you will find for this.

Meanwhile, here's a video (which I found at Bangkok Pundit) explaining the flood situation in Thailand.  It's in Thai, but it has English subtitles, though it's pretty fast.  But it's an interesting example of explaining a disaster to the public and what they should do.  There are more at Rusuflood's Youtube page. 



  1. In Spanish, the word "habitable" means in English "inhabitable"; the word "inhabitable" means in English "not inhabitable"...

  2. Most translation theorists agree that translation is understood as a transfer process from a foreign language or a second language to the mother tongue.


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