Food & Culture

The Hilarious "English As She Is Spoke" Might Just Be the World's Worst Translation Handbook

Have you ever visited a place where you didn't speak the language? It's pretty tough to navigate. Say you make a trip to America and you only speak Portuguese. Even if you have a friend that can translate for you, you'll probably end up feeling pretty isolated, since you can't really communicate or navigate on your own. Now, say that your friend didn't speak English, but knew how to speak Portuguese and French, and knew somebody else who could speak French and English. You still wouldn't stand a chance of navigating the country. You might, however, end up making a comedy masterpiece to last the centuries.

English as She Is Spoke

The name says it all: "English as She Is Spoke" is the most ridiculous, unusable translation aid in history. It was the brainchild of an aspiring Portuguese translator named Pedro Carolino, who wanted to create a useful phrasebook for Portuguese students visiting abroad. Whether out of optimism or cynicism, however, he opted not to learn English or to hire somebody who could. He also didn't feel it was necessary to purchase an English-Portuguese dictionary to complete this project. Instead, he used the tools at his disposal: a Portuguese-to-French phrasebook by the author Jose da Fonseca, and a French-to-English dictionary. Just translate the "French" side of the phrasebook to English, Carolino thought, and you'll have a Portuguese-to-English phrasebook instead. Whether to give credit where credit was due or to lend credibility to his poorly conceived translation, when the first edition was published in 1855, it was also credited to Fonseca, much to the legitimate translator's chagrin.

Because even though the book was absolutely absurd, it became a critical success. When the second edition was published in 1883, the American version came with a foreword by none other than Mark Twain, who offered these glowing words of praise: "[The book] is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure." Yeah ... he's being facetious. You can find out for yourself by picking up the book on Amazon, since it's still in publication to this day. Or you can just read on for a selection of some of the most useful phrases in the book.

Everyday English, or Buying Cat in Pocket

Carolino's inimitable book was divided into several sections for the convenience of the unfortunate person who might use the book in earnest. The first section is common words, sorted by subject. In its list of Degrees of Kindred (you know, members of your family), you'll find entries such as:

The gossip

The gossip-mistress

The quater-grandfather

A relation

An relation

Other types of words include Objects of Man (the buttons-holes, the buskins, the wig), Servants (coochmann, groome, spendth), and For the Table (some knifes, some crumb). The next section covers familiar phrases to any English speakers. Things like:

"Dress your hairs."

"He burns one's self the brains."

"I have put my stockings outward."

"All trees have very deal bear."

And then there are the idioms, or as the book calls them, "Idiotisms." These are the best because if you squint you can almost see what they're supposed to be:

"The stone as roll not heap up not foam."

"To buy cat in pocket."

"He is beggar as a church rat."

"To craunch the marmoset."

"To come back at their muttons."

Okay, so you have to squint pretty hard on some of those. But the fact remains, this book is a comedy legend.

If you want to give actually learning a language a shot, why not try Babbel? You'll pick up your lingo of choice (Portuguese is an option) thanks to lessons put together by bonafide native speakers. If you decide to purchase through that link, Curiosity will receive a portion of the sale. We really appreciate that.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas May 25, 2018

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