Den's Blog Rotating Header Image

July, 2010:

Language confusion killed my lawn mower

The inherent ambiguity of the Chinese language, plus Chinese L1 interference on L2 English, contributed to the death of my lawn mower today.

Ian and Evan both wanted the chance to make some money, so the obvious choice was to stop the lawn service and have the boys take turns cutting the grass for money. We notified our yard guy that his services were no longer required, and we planned to have the boys start mowing this week, right after they got back from camp.

I came home from work today, and saw the lawn mower in the middle of the back yard. The grass was not cut.

Stacy reported that the lawn mower was “broken.” It wouldn’t start, and the carburetor was spitting oil. I went out and gave the cord a few pulls. Sure enough, it wouldn’t start, and the carburetor was spitting something, but instead of dark oil, what was coming out was clear. I opened the cap to the oil tank, and saw that it was shiny and clear inside, instead of dark and murky. I was quite puzzled, until I put the cap back on. The cap was clearly labeled “oil.” I instantly knew what had happened.

As tactfully as I could, I asked Stacy what steps she had taken to prepare the lawn mower. She said that she put gas in it, then tried to start it. That confirmed my suspicions.

The Chinese word for gas is 汽油, which can be translated literally as “steam oil,” but we commonly shorten in to just 油, which is the “oil” part. When we put gas in the car, we say 加油, literally, “add oil.” There is another word for “engine oil,” 機油. Same 油 “oil” character in the name of that, too.

Stacy saw the word “oil” on the cap, assumed that it meant “gas,” and poured gasoline into the oil chamber. It turns out that pouring gas down the oil hole isn’t good for the engine.

My lawn mower is dead, killed by bad translation from Chinese to English. Whom can I sue for that?

Hello world!

This blog describes my little adventures as I go through life.

If you’re looking for the blog that I kept during my Fulbright year in Taiwan, you can find it here: http://denniehoopingarner.com/taiwanblog/.