Unfortunate translations and deliberate confusions

Inevitably in the environment of speedy communication and social propaganda involving more than one language, unfortunate translations made their way into print. Phrasebooks offered such delights as “Give me for sixpence of this” (Soldaten-Sprachführer 1915) or, of a pair of shoes, “They pinnts me. No confortable” (Manuel de la Conversation. c. 1916), while postcards offered “A Zeppelin thrown down in the Vardar marshes”, or “Havoc home’s by the Germans brutal’s”.



Virgin of the limp

A recent arrival on the LFWW desk is this double postcard, with views of the statue at the top of the basilica in Albert, before and after shelling. This was the subject of the famous Australian designation of the statue of the Virgin and Child as ‘Fanny Durack’, after the world-champion swimmer. The mistranslation is presumably via ‘lantern’ (the pillared canopy construction at the top of the tower) being linked with ‘lamp’, and making an unfortunate transition to ‘limp’. And ending up with something about as ironic, and nearly as funny, as ‘Fanny Durack’.


Deliberate wordplay was a continuing theme of soldiering during the war, satirising army life through the familiar, in the same way that men in the trenches belittled shells and guns through associating them with the familiars of city life: trams, trains and office machines. In these cases the references are hymns, food and the general need to pun. Freud proposed that the pun was ‘a victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability’, but also that puns admitted weakness, humour alleviating the stress of repressing unpleasant truths – these phrases pop up on the internet on any search for puns, but both ideas seem remarkably appropriate to the soldier’s lot. In an egregiously unfamiliar environment – the training camps threw together people who would otherwise have striven to keep themselves apart from each other – it is no wonder that people sought the familiar by which to both gauge the unfamiliar and to normalise it. Doing so asserted at least a semblance of control over their situation.

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