Since starting work at GlobaLexicon, I have become much more aware of words and the context in which they are used. This became particularly evident during my recent trip to Laos; my mother’s home country. During my time there, I also found myself considering people’s relationships with languages.
If you don’t know all too much about Laos, you are not alone. I have found its neighbours Thailand, Vietnam, and even Cambodia to be much more famous around the world. However, this small, landlocked country in Southeast Asia is well worth knowing as it is rich in its own treasures: picturesque waterfalls, towering rocky mountains and an abundance of colourful Buddhist temples; the long-standing witnesses to Laos’s past and traditions.
Given the country’s colonial history, the French influence is still very evident today. Most official buildings in Vientiane, the capital, have their names in both Lao and French. The same applies to street names. The northern city of Luang Prabang, former capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its colonial French architecture. Until recently, French was still frequently taught in schools and if you ever meet an older Lao person, you might just find that they are able to hold a perfectly fluent conversation in French. The language’s influence can still be found in everyday conversations today; for example, the Lao word for ice cream is ກະແລັມ (ka laem), originating from the French “crème”. The Lao pronunciation paired with the word’s Latin etymology make for an interesting mix.
However, French has gradually lost its importance over time and it appears that, as in most other countries, English is becoming the second leading language. In spite of this, it is essential to note that many people do not actually speak it and thus it can be rather difficult to find English speakers outside of Vientiane.
This can make for some comical mistranslations, as in the picture below:
Bad translation aside, it might be interesting to give some context about the picture itself. Taken near the Presidential Palace, which as its name suggests is the official residence of the President of Laos, the serious intent of the message along with the prestige of its location are somewhat negated by the awkward wording. It seems as though they are in need of a good proofreader!
I travelled to Laos in mid-April, at the time of the Songkran festival, or Lao New Year. Observed in several other Asian countries such as Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka, people from all over the country celebrate the New Year by throwing water at each other in a cleansing ritual, resulting in a nationwide water fight. During three relentless days, people not only take part in water-based celebration, but also in more traditional activities such as visiting the pagodas in order to cleanse the Buddha statues with flowers and perfumed water. Just like many celebrations around the world, drinking in merriment is a common sight. The drink of choice in Laos is called “Beerlao”, the most popular beer in the country. Can you guess what the disclaimer on the Beerlao ads say?
“Drink, but don’t drive.”
So, terrible translation or genius marketing? I’ll let you be the judge on this one!