English As She Should Be Spoke

Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve seen many strange messages written on the back of lavatory doors, and as a translator and former language teacher, I’m super sensitive to quirky formulations in any of the languages in which I’m proficient, so when I saw this in a public toilet I just had to snap it for posterity.


Rhyming couplets are a popular form of humorous doggerel in German, but sadly, a literal translation into the other languages with no rhyme or rhythm just results in puzzlement. The humour is also lost. Are you supposed to sweep the place? Not deface the walls with graffiti?  No, just look back at the lavatory bowl and if necessary, use the brush to wipe it clean in consideration of the person who will be following you here. A request to leave the place as you would wish to find it. But I wonder how many English, Italian or French speakers actually understood this, if they didn’t speak German? Did anyone attempt to clean the toilet with a broom (scopa, balai)?

Through the years, I have acquired a small collection of these awkward translations. One that made me giggle was on a menu in Brittany, where croque-monsieur was translated fairly adequately into English as “ham and cheese on toast” and then into German as “Schinken und Käse am Trinkspruch”. For non-German-speakers, the word “Trinkspruch” is indeed toast,  but refers to raising your glass to drink to a person’s health – “toast” in the non-bread sense.

Another one from Brittany:


Here the sense is clear enough, and I trust that any English speakers on “earing the audio signal” were not drowned. Someone must have commented on this sign, as it was later removed and replaced by a version in perfectly correct English.

The following label adorned a pair of jeans I once bought:


I was never able to confirm whether the expert ‘s tasting was accurate, as I don’t ride, but I don’t recall deriving any particular pleasure in the street from wearing this garment!

Finally, a notice enclosed with a packet of tea, beautifully calligraphed in Chinese on the reverse, that did indeed afford my mother “exceedingly noble enjoyment”. She wasn’t so impressed by the tea, but did like the idea of “merrily drinking” it. We never discovered if it really did enlighten drunkenness and cure sunstroke.


8 thoughts on “English As She Should Be Spoke

  1. Thanks for the chuckle. I like watching foreign films and the subtitles can be amusing. One I remember was some army man telling his troops to “Salt the enemy with grapeshot” Mind you, I can’t speak any other languages, but I cant help smiling anyway.

  2. These are hilarious and remind me of my own attempts to beef up my really poor German skills when writing letters to relatives (who speak flawless English). I often puzzle over words and how to fit them together, so I’ll use an online translation program for ideas. Of course, those always use the formal pronouns, which I then try to replace with the familiar. But even in double checking those translations, I know some of the words are way off base. I provide endless fun for the recipients of my crazy letters!

  3. Also, ich wurde in Frankreich schon mal zur Nutzung des “balai” mit folgenden Worten aufgefordert:
    Si la chasse d’eau n’aie pas toujours la force pour enlever les traces de votre sèjours dans ce lieu de relaxation, ayez, par contre, la gentillesse d’utiliser le petit balai qui est à votre entière disposition pour effacer vos Picassos dans la toilette.

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