We’re just back from holiday in Portugal, with a mid-year resolution to sign up for Portuguese lessons at Glasgow University’s Department of Adult and Continuing Education, which thankfully seems to have survived the threatened budget cuts. As my daughter put it, we felt like such tourists, not being able to speak the language.
However, not speaking Portuguese didn’t stop me from keeping my translator’s hat on and noting mistakes in English translations of signs, menus, museum pamphlets and so on. To be honest, I didn’t see many outright howlers, but one poor translation really bugged me — mainly because it was omnipresent on one of the country’s major pieces of infrastructure.
The Portuguese motorways operate a toll system where you can either pay as you go, or sign up to the Via Verde system. Under this scheme, an electronic identifier fitted in your car lets you drive straight through the Via Verde lane, with the toll fee being debited directly to your bank account.
The motorway signs in English identified the Via Verde lane as being for “adherents” and invited the rest of us to “pick up” our tickets at the ticket dispensers.
According to Merriam Webster, an “adherent” is:
a : a follower of a leader, party, or profession
b : a believer in or advocate especially of a particular idea or church,
neither of which applies to people who’ve signed up to an electronic toll-payment system. Given that the “Via Verde” lane is clearly marked with a great big green “V” on the road itself and on the overhead signage, couldn’t the motorway people just have used “Via Verde” or “Subscribers” on their signs?
I’ll spare you Merriam Webster’s entry for “pick up”*; it’s very long. Once again, none of the definitions applies to the case in point. You pick up theatre tickets you’ve ordered by phone or online, but you take your motorway ticket from a dispensing machine. Don’t you?
Maybe I’m just being pernickety here. But I can’t help thinking of the huge budgets involved in building and running a motorway and installing all those thousands of signs, and the infinitesimally small proportion of such budgets that even the most expensive translation service would cost. Or maybe the motorway company just asked somebody in the office to translate the signs, figuring that it’s dead easy to translate just a couple of words into English. When in fact translating single words and short phrases is one of the hardest things to do, because you’ve got no context to help.
Whatever translation service the motorways used, surely they could have spent a couple of euros more to get things rightS
*On second thoughts, here’s Merriam Webster on “to pick up” (look away now if you’re allergic to phrasal verbs):
a : to take hold of and lift up
b : to gather together : collect <picked up all the pieces>
c : to clean up : tidy
2: to take (passengers or freight) into a vehicle
3 a : to acquire casually or by chance <picked up a valuable antique at an auction>
b : to acquire by study or experience : learn <picking up a great deal of knowledge in the process — Robert Schleicher>
c : to obtain especially by payment : buy <picked up some groceries>
d : to acquire (a player) especially from another team through a trade or by financial recompense
e : to accept for the purpose of paying <offered to pick up the tab>
f : to come down with : catch <picked up a cold>
g : gain, earn <picked up a few yards on the last play> <picked up her first victory>
4 a : to enter informally into conversation or companionship with (a previously unknown person) <had a brief affair with a girl he picked up in a bar>
b : to take into custody <the police picked up the fugitive>
5 a : to catch sight of : perceive <picked up the harbor lights>
b : to come to and follow <picked up the outlaw’s trail>
c : to bring within range of sight or hearing <pick up distant radio signals>
d : understand, catch <didn’t pick up the hint>
6 a : revive
b : increase
7: to resume after a break : continue <pick up the discussion tomorrow>
8: to assume responsibility for guarding (an opponent) in an athletic contest
1: to recover or increase speed, vigor, or activity : improve <after the strike, business picked up> <the wind began to pick up>
2: to put things in order <was always picking up after her>
3: to pack up one’s belongings <couldn’t just pick up and leave>
As I said, it’s a long list.
By Marian Dougan