Io non so niente

Although I primarily speak and write in English, I am a bit of a language magpie, collecting words and phrases wherever I encounter them.  These days, I speak enough French to get by in Paris, enough Spanish to struggle through my bilingual Bible, enough Yiddish to entertain myself, and enough Italian to humiliate myself thoroughly.  That is to say, I speak none of these languages at all well, but perhaps better than many Americans do.

When I was working in Italy, I asked one of my coworkers how to say “I am a manager” in Italian.  He smiled, and said “Io non so niente.”  Literally translated:  I know nothing.  From the perspective of a shipyard worker, this was probably an accurate translation.  While the Spanish “no se nada” flows more readily from my tongue, both phrases have become integrated into my English-language conversations for the past few decades.old-spice

But I’m not here to talk about Italy, or even management.  I’m here to talk about body wash.

A few years ago, I started using Old Spice body wash in my shower.  I don’t know if it gets me any cleaner than plain old soap, but my wife likes the scent, and keeping her happy is a primary CTQ in my morning routine.

Recently I was reading the back of the bottle and noticed that the sales pitch is presented there bilingually in English and French, presumably because I live so close to Quebec.  The final phrase (and its translation) caught my eye:

Drop-kicks dirt, then slams odor with a folding chair.

Lutte contre la saleté et les odeurs et les envoie au tapis pour le compte grâce a une impitoyable savate japonaise.

Google translate has a really hard time interpreting this French expression, primarily because it contains two idioms:  “compte grâce”, which is a variant on “coup de grâce”, or “knockout blow”, and “savate japonaise”, which is the French term for karate.  I suspect it’s an appropriate translation for the English that precedes it, which is equally idiomatic.  Both carry militant masculine notes that would carry well with their target audience.  The WWE reference to chair shots is so well-known in the US that it even shows up as a joke in Shrek.

Recently, I’ve been doing some world building for a society that practices matrilineal inheritance, like the Minangs of Sumatra.  Since it’s a desert society, I’ve been trying to work Pinglish names and terms into the cultural backstory.  Imagine Iran with all of its benefits, but with an egalitarian society where all property is owned by women, and you’ll see why I find the idea so appealing.

Still, my struggles translating the body wash bottle have me worried.  Farsi is a right-to-left language with a font my brain simply doesn’t want to parse into distinct letters, and while there are several nice online tools that will translate Pinglish into Farsi, I haven’t found one that will go the other way.  And the most important things, culturally, for which I would hope to use a Farsi term, are concepts that are best translated idiomatically.  I suspect this is going to be a long road, and I hope I can get there without mangling the language too badly.


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