12 September 2014


Some mistranslations are just amusing, while others could have rather more serious consequences.

I saw this on a hand drier in one of the toilets at UBD:

The advice to 'place your hands in and out of the machine' sounds potentially lethal!

In contrast, this advice elsewhere on the same notice is not quite so dangerous:

The trouble with this one is that 'hang down' is an intransitive verb – it cannot take an object, so, for example, you cannot *'hang down your clothes in the wardrobe'. In consequence, as 'things' cannot be the object of 'hang down', the instruction must be that you should not yourself hang down from the machine. I guess people are not really likely to try and do that!

09 September 2014


My UBD colleague, James McLellan, sent me a link to an article published in the on-line Borneo Post of 4 September 2014 (here), discussing the actions of some people in Sarawak who want to secede from Malaysia.

Unfortunately, instead of 'secession' (= the act of seceding, or formally withdrawing), the fourth paragraph of the article mentions 'the cessation movement', and 'cessation' means 'stopping'. So it means that the movement wants Sarawak to stop!

In fact, 'secession' /sɪ'seʃən/ and 'cessation' /se'seɪʃən/ are pronounced almost identically, so the confusion is not too surprising. Nevertheless, one would have thought that a copy-editor might have checked it.

Or perhaps the Deputy Home Affairs Minister of Malaysia really did use the word 'cessation', and the Borneo Post is quoting him accurately.

28 August 2014

False Friends

False friends are words that are borrowed from one language into another, but then they undergo a change in meaning. Alternatively, they may be cognates (words derived from the same source) with different meanings in different languages. For example, librarie in French looks like it should be 'library'; but actually it is 'bookshop'.

So, what false friends are there in Malay? Maybe bonet which (at least in Brunei) can refer to the boot of a car, not its bonnet. Also plastic, which refers to a plastic bag. And there is kompaun, which comes from English 'compound' but which should probably be translated as 'fine'. Finally, there is doket, from English 'docket' but I have no idea what it means.

I saw this in the Media Permata of 6 August 2014, p. 6:

Sebanyak 202 kes kompaun dan lapan kes doket yang meliputi pelbagai kesalahan lalu lintas telah dicatatkan … sejak minggu pertama Syawal

which might be translated as:

A total of 202 fines and 8 court cases involving various traffic offenses have been recorded ... since the first week of the month of Syawal.

Here I have translated doket as 'court cases'; but I am not sure if that is correct or not. I looked in the Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu site, and the only word offered for doket is 'docket'. But that clearly won't do in the extract above.

Translators need to be especially vigilant when dealing with false friends such as this.

21 August 2014

Exam Results

The results of the Brunei-Cambridge 'A' levels were announced yesterday. Of the 610 candidates, 404 (66.2%) obtained at least one 'A' level. While this represents a small improvement over last year, it still means that just over one third of the candidates took the exams and got absolutely nothing, which seems very sad. They will have studied for two years and will leave school with no 'A' levels at all, not even an E grade in one subject.

For the 'O' levels, only 719 out of the 2,416 candidates obtained three or more 'O' levels. Again, this is an improvement over the previous results. But it still means that over 70% of the candidates got fewer than two 'O' levels. And it makes one wonder if 'O' levels set in Cambridge are the most appropriate exams for these people to be taking.

07 August 2014


I have previously discussed the use of 'pieces' in Brunei English, such as the following from The Brunei Times of 25/12/2011:

The police has seized 12 pieces of $100 notes ...

and also the following from the Borneo Bulletin of 25/10/2011:

We are currently producing about 2,000 pieces pf solid/engineered doors a month.

(Both these are from Deterding & Salbrina, Brunei English, 2013, p. 55.)

In standard English, 'pieces' would be redundant in both these extracts, as 'notes' and 'doors' are both count nouns, and 'pieces' is only used for noncount nouns like 'cheese' or 'advice'.

One possibility to explain the use of 'pieces' with count nouns in Brunei is that it is influenced by measure words in Malay, such as ekor for animals, orang for people, and biji for fruit. (Chinese similarly also has measure words, such as 本 for books and the general-purpose 个.)

Some evidence for the influence of Malay comes from this extract from a leaflet issued by the Ministry of Health:

Note the use of 'pieces' for bananas and also dates, even though these are count nouns in English. The equivalent text in the Malay version is this:

Note that biji is used for all items.

It is not clear why the English version uses 'pieces' for the plural items (bananas and dates) but not for the singular items. Nevertheless, it seems that the English has been influenced by the use of biji in the Malay.

05 August 2014


Sometimes translators just give up when they try to deal with different kinds of food. Here is an extract from a brochure output by the Ministry of Health giving guidance on sugar intake:

And here is the same information translated into English:

In the third list of items, it seems that the translator just gave up when trying to differentiate kuih-muih from kek and just used 'cakes' for both; and also no attempt has been made to deal with bingka, a dense cake in Brunei, so it is omitted.

25 July 2014


Here is a headline from page 2 of Media Permata of 26 July:

Ada majikan tidak bayar 'overtime' pekerja

which might be glossed as:

There are bosses who do not pay overtime to workers

Then, the first paragraph of the article starts with:

Sebilangan majikan didapati tidak membayar kerja lebih masa kepada pekerja mereka

which might be glossed as:

Some bosses are found who do not pay overtime to their workers

It is interesting that the headline uses the English 'overtime' but the article itself uses the Malay equivalent kerja lebih masa.

I quite often see English/Malay doublets, often presenting an English technical term and then its Malay equivalent, but this is the first time I have seen the English in the headline but the Malay equivalent in the text. However, I guess it works well enough.

20 July 2014


I just read a short article in the Guardian Online (here) about the invented word 'oxt'. Apparently, if today is Friday, then 'this weekend' would be tomorrow and the next day, while 'oxt weekend' would be the following week. (I'm not sure if anyone is actually proposing this new word, or if it is just a joke.)

What is interesting is this: we know what 'this weekend' means; and now 'oxt weekend' has been defined. So what does 'next weekend' mean?

And If today is Monday and I say "Let's meet next Wednesday", when are we meeting? Is it the day after tomorrow? Or is it the Wednesday of next week, i.e. in nine days' time? Nobody seems to know, which seems totally bizarre. Perhaps we really do need a new word such as 'oxt' to help sort things out.

04 July 2014

Long Sentences

I recently saw this sentence on page 6 of the Media Permata of 3 July. It is 76 words long.

Sepanjang bulan Ramadan ini, Jabatan Bomba dan Penyelamat mengambil kesempatan ini untuk menasihatkan dan mengingatkan kepada orang ramai untuk berhati-hati terutama sekali dari segi aspek pencegahan kebakaran khususnya suri-suri rumah tangga apabila berada di dapur untuk memastikan tidak meninggalkan sebarang masakan terbiar dan apabila meninggalkan rumah untuk memastikan membuat senarai semak iaitu untuk memastikan semua peralatan elektrik yang tidak digunakan hendaklah ditutup termasuk gas memasak di mana dikhuatiri berlaku kebocoran yang boleh membawa kepada berlakunya kejadian yang tidak diingini.

It might be translated (rather badly) as:

Throughout this month of Ramadan, the Fire and Safety Office is taking the opportunity to advise and remind the public to be careful especially with respect to avoiding fires particularly housewives when they are in the kitchen to ensure they do not leave their cooking unattended and when they leave the house they should ensure they complete a checklist namely to ensure all electrical tools which are not being used are switched off including the cooking gas whereby there are worries there might be a leak which could bring about an undesirable event.

In this rather literal translation, I have maintained the use of 'whereby' as a translation di mana, as lots of my students use 'whereby' in their English.

As far as I know, the Malay is fine; but English does not encourage such long sentences. It would be better to break it up, maybe something like:

Throughout this month of Ramadan, the Fire and Safety Office is taking the opportunity to remind the public to be careful especially with respect to avoiding fires. In particular, housewives in the kitchen should ensure they do not leave their cooking unattended. In addition, when they leave the house, they should complete a checklist to make sure all electrical tools which are not being used are switched off. Furthermore, they should be careful about the cooking gas, as there are worries there might be a leak which could bring about an undesirable event.

In addition to breaking it up into four sentences, I have avoided the use of 'advise and remind', which seems a bit redundant, even though menasihatkan dan mingingatkan is fine in Malay. I have also eliminated the repetition of 'ensure', even though memastikan occurs three times in the Malay.

Shortening of sentences and avoiding lexical repetition are issues that need to be considered when translating from Malay into English.

26 June 2014

Opaque Idioms

While watching the World Cup, I am always struck by how many opaque idioms the commentators use:

they're under the cosh (they're under pressure)
that's right on the money (the ball is just where he wanted it)
it's kitchen sink time now (the team is throwing everything forward)
he's got his foot to the floor (he's going as fast as he can)

and so on. I pity foreign language learners who are trying to make any sense of this kind of commentary.

Of course, opaque idioms are all around us, and we rarely stop to think about them. My wife recently heard that someone who had been in hospital for a while had 'turned the corner', and she thought that must be bad, as you don't know what's around the corner. But, in fact, 'turn the corner' is used to indicate that things have started to improve, and the person in hospital was now getting better.

Another idiom with an unexpected connotation is 'over the hill'. Logically, climbing a hill is hard work, and once you get to the top and can start going downhill, that should be good news. But in fact we use 'over the hill' to refer to someone who is past it and is no longer able to contribute much.

And one more: I always think that 'purple patch' ought to be something bad, as I associate purple with bruises and things like that. But, in fact, a purple patch is a period of notable success, especially for a writer or a musician. Apparently, it derives from Roman times, when purple was an exquisite colour that only the rich could afford to wear.

Of course, Malay is just the same. I came across ringan tulang (lit. 'light bone'), and I thought that must be bad. In fact it means 'hardworking'.

And in today's Media Permata I saw this: perkara pokok (lit 'tree matter'). Now, what could that mean? There seemed to be nothing about trees in the article! In fact, perkara pokok means 'the crux of the matter'.

Well, perhaps this last one is because pokok ('tree') has a secondary meaning, for it can also mean 'basic', as in gaji pokok ('basic salary'). Nevertheless, it reminds us how opaque idioms can be.

24 June 2014

Singular 'their'

I just wrote a reference for one of my students to study at York University, and the message that came back was:

Thank you for taking the time to upload a reference for Ms Xxx Xxx in connection with their application for the MSc in Forensic Speech Science.

(where I have blanked out the name to maintain anonymity).

It is interesting to see that the University uses 'their', even though the gender of the applicant is known to be female (note the use of 'Ms').

I find it encouraging that 'they' and 'their' are becoming increasingly acceptable for singular referents. It makes things so much easier than having to write 'his or her' or something clumsy like that.

17 June 2014


One of the biggest problems for learners of a foreign language is when their first language has a superordinate word and the foreign language has two (or more) hyponyms. For example, even after speaking Chinese for 40 years, I still get caught out by the distinction between 穿 chuān and 戴 dài, both of which are 'wear' in English. In Chinese, you use 穿 for clothes and 戴 for peripheral things like hats or seat-belts; but in English we say 'wear a shirt', 'wear socks', 'wear a hat' and 'wear a seatbelt'.

In speaking Malay, the same problems might occur for padi, beras and nasi, all of which are 'rice' in English. However, I find it easier to to keep those apart, as they are nouns, and it is easier to remember that padi is growing in the fields, beras is for sale in a shop, and nasi is already cooked.

What about the other way round? Chinese speakers of English often confuse 'he' and 'she' in English, because although they are differentiated in writing as 他 and 她, both are pronounced the same: .

For Malay learners of English, I would expect that the distinction between 'pain' and 'sickness' would be problematic, as both are sakit in Malay.

14 June 2014


I was just watching Chile against Australia in the World Cup, and the commentator (who seemed to be from Britain) constantly referred to the Chilean team as /tʃɪˈleɪən/. I have never heard that before, and for me it would be /ˈtʃɪlɪən/.

I then checked the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd edn), and indeed /ˈtʃɪlɪən/ is the only possibility listed for British pronunciation. However, for American pronunciation, /tʃɪˈliːən/ is given as the most common, followed by /tʃɪˈleɪən/, so the commentator was using the second pronunciation found in the USA.

I wonder if a sound change is taking place in how we are expected to say the word. When I was young, Caribbean was pronounced /ˌkærɪˈbiːən/ (with the main stress on the third syllable). But nowadays, it seems to be /kəˈrɪbɪən/ (with the stress on the second syllable). Perhaps the pronunciation of Chilean is also undergoing change.

08 June 2014


This picture (sent to me by Ishamina Athirah) is presumably advertising for a tailor, i.e. someone who cuts and sews.

The trouble is that 'sewer' has two different meanings in English: when pronounced /su:ə/, it is a drain; and when pronounced /səʊə/, it is someone who sews. However, the first meaning is much more common than the second, and in reality we never use the second meaning. Instead, we say 'tailor' or 'seamstress' or something like that.

My guess is that this use of 'sewer' is a direct translation of penjahit ('someone who sews'). In Malay pemotong dan penjahit ('someone who cuts and someone who sews') would make perfect sense.

26 May 2014


On Linguist List (here) I just saw this opening pane from a comic strip:

The posting is about the use of 'peak friend'. But what about 'BORF'? What does it mean? It looks like an acronym. But if it is, what does it stand for?

The online Hyperdictionary (here) defines it as:

To uncerimoniously (sic) disconnect someone from a system without prior warning.

But then it says that its origin is unknown.

Keeping track of new terminology is difficult; and it doesn't help when what appears to be an acronym has an unknown origin.

(It also doesn't help when 'unceremoniously' is misspelt. I guess the Hyperdictionary isn't the most reliable resource.)