A Popular Ice Cream Flavor Lost in Translation

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I saw this picture on a Power Point slide in my Psych class.  It was a classic case of lost in translation—a small faux pas with a hilarious result. The English translation, of course, was meant to be “Rum Raisin.” 

So—why the mix-up? My professor pointed out, in Japanese, there’s no difference between the /r/ and /l/ sounds. Thus, “rum” and “lamb” are both written as ラム (ra-mu). I found this interesting, and worthy of further examination. 

Line 1: The Japanese is written correctly, with “rum” as ラム (ra-mu) and raisin as レーズン (re-zun). That said, it’s obvious the store owner likely speaks Japanese and understood what the flavor was.

Line 2: Thvanilla ice cream coneperson translating the Japanese clearly didn’t know the flavor. (I, myself, would have vouched for a taste test!) But at least they knew Japanese, because ラム (ra-mu) can indeed be translated as “lamb.”

Line 3: The Chinese text reads “Rum Raisin,” just as the Japanese does. So the person translating must have understood Chinese, too. It’s a good thing they didn’t translate the English to Chinese, or that too would have read “Lamb Raisin”.

My guess: the store had someone internal translate the Japanese to Chinese, but not the English to Chinese. Although, a second-party translator would have held a 50-50 chance at getting it right.

Line 4: I asked a few Korean friends about this line, because I’m not fluent, myself. Each stated that the text read as “Rum Raisin,” as expected. But one friend did say “Lamb Raisin…with a weird spelling.” I turned to online dictionaries for help, but what I found was inconclusive: The English-to-Korean translation of “rum” gave럼, while the Korean-to-English translation resulted in “Did you mean럼주?” Which is indeed “rum.” Perhaps the translator wasn’t fluent in Korean, or they used an alternate spelling.w

Conclusion: Most of the evidence supports the idea that the Korean stays “Rum Raisin.” If that’s true, the translator knew the nature of the business and understood both Korean and Japanese, but not English.

The store must have a Japanese-Chinese bilingual and a Japanese-Korean bilingual on staff. But neither of them knew English. The owner probably asked an external source to translate the Japanese to English, but didn’t supply the Chinese and Korean translations. And, most likely, the owner didn’t use a digital translating device, since “rum” is more popularly used with ラム (ra-mu) than “lamb.”

Although there are plenty of strange ice cream flavors out there, this was simply a translation mix-up. And a potentially costly one, at that. I’m guessing many English-speaking customers passed on this particular treat, not seeing the appeal of “Lamb Raisin” flavored ice cream.


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Xin Shan

Xin Shan is an undergraduate student at Stanford University majoring in linguistics and biology. She was born in China, raised in Japan, and moved to the United States in fourth grade. There, she started learning Spanish in seventh grade and picked up a bit of Korean at Stanford. She loves learning languages and acquiring the new dimensions of emotions that accompany each culture. In addition to learning Korean with Rosetta Stone, her next goal is to try her hand at learning American Sign Language. On a daily basis, Xin uses her languages in a variety of situations. She uses Chinese to interpret for patients and doctors at a free clinic, Japanese to analyze particles in linguistics research, and Spanish to comprehend signs in supermarkets. Xin also likes to play the piano, draw, and just sit under the California sun doing absolutely nothing. Occasionally, she also cuts hair for her friends—a skill that emerged from an unfortunate haircut at a local barbershop. In the future, Xin would love to combine medicine and language in as many innovative ways as possible. She considers language to be a powerful tool that can truly affect the world. In 2011, Xin was a finalist in the Rosetta Stone Communicate and Connect Scholarship contest (http://bit.ly/r9M7bv). She’ll be blogging for Language Journeys about her experiences learning more languages.
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