Lost in Translation

Several of the model railroad product lines which are detailed on these pages are from Germany.  I’m a fan of German technology and engineering, but there are some issues that come up which impede the sales and use of German trains in the North American market.  Certainly, one issue is that the Germans are very product driven while the Americans are very market driven.  Put another way, the Germans make something and people are expected to buy it. On the other hand, the Americans wonder why the Germans make trains that don’t have the features that we want.

German companies have often had a problem with language, with the translators of German language documents into other languages having a great deal of influence over the sales outcomes in the non-German speaking markets.  This is not a problem confined to the European model train manufacturers.  The Americans have it, too.

Consider the marketing of the Chevrolet Nova in Mexico.  While Nova means bright shining star in English, it also means No Va in Spanish; “It doesn’t go”.  So, too, with Cue toothpaste in France; “cue” is French slang for buttocks.  You can just imagine the possibilities.

In model railroading, the problem rears its head when people translate German terms into English.  The nice thing about German is that those very long words, such as “Steuerungsmöglichkeiten” can be broken down into their respective components, which can get you half way to an understanding of the term in English. (It means “Control Options”, by the way). In other situations, the translator of a German language catalog can make some classic mistakes.  Such as when they translate bugel-koppler as “bugle coupler”, when the actual term is horn-coupler. 

Under other circumstances, you have the elegant translations of Eric LaNal, notably the Arnold rapido catalogs of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. LaNal understood the German language and knew model railroading, and the result is a clear statement of the value of Arnold rapido trains. The translator controls a great deal about how a product appears in an export market.

There are other moments when, well, you just have to wonder what happened. Consider this example of fine German electronic technology made by Siemens and marketed by Arnold rapido in the United States:

This appears in the Arnold catalogs which were translated after Eric LaNal had passed on, and the glorious language is gone.  While ASS obviously means something to the Germans, some sort of acronym, it means something else entirely different here. Needless to say, the ArnoldASS never caught on here. And, for what it’s worth, later editions of the Arnold catalog often had the term “ASS” blanked out.

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