Monday, June 18, 2012

Lost in translation?

This morning I saw a twitter update about a Korean Air Ad, promoting its new 3 times a week flight to Nairobi, which would otherwise be great news, as Kenya embraces the East as tourist and investor numbers from the traditional western markets begin to decline following not only the European financial crisis, but internal issues such as the post-election violence in 2007-2008, as well as continued tension between Alshabaab and the Kenyan government.

But it wasn’t good news. I searched the website, and found this

This advert became the object of banter among Kenyans most of today. Known on twitter as #KOT, or Kenyans on twitter; the response ranged from rage,analysis, to hilarious bits about everything Korean.

These were some of my tweets

'However much we try to be analytical about the word primitive, if I referred to you as such you would be offended."

My first thought was that it wasn’t meant to actually mean primitive.According to the oxford dictionary, when used as an adjective

ancient, original

archaic, basic, earliest, early, elementary, essential, first, fundamental, old, primal, primary, primeval, primordial, pristine, substratal, underivative, underived, underlying, undeveloped, unevolved

As a noun, Primitive is defined as:

1a person belonging to a preliterate, non-industrial society: reports of travellers and missionaries described contemporary primitives
2a pre-Renaissance painter or one who imitates the pre-Renaissance style.

Allow me to digress, during my first visit to China, our tour guide, who was a graduate of the English Language told us about Chinglish; (Chinese-English) a word used to describe the common translation of Mandarin to English; which is almost always a literal translation. Several times, especially when ‘Google Translate’ is used, the sentence construction is wrong and there's quite a bit of grammatival errors.

I believe that Korean Air had no intentions of abusing the Kenyan people in what they referred to as 'primitive energy'.

I would like to however meet a Korean, to explain what the translation of "Primitive energy" means in Korean. I wouldnt be shocked if it read something like: Pure Energy, basic or unadulterated by the modern world.

Hence my blog title; Lost in Translation


  1. We can blame it on language translation

  2. Forget what primitive means in Korean or in the dictionary. It's all about what it means to us as Kenyans. The ad was meant for us anyway. No matter what banter is used to adorn the word primitive, it is still offensive. According to my dictionary, primitive is "unaffected or little affected by civilizing influences; uncivilized; savage: primitive passions". Notice the word "uncivilized", that's what that's what the word primitive connotes. So, why should I be okay with such an ad?

  3. Shem, I thank you for seeing my point of view. However i agree with @Calestous on twitter who says, despite the translation gaffe, or whatever it is that made sure the energy Kenyans have is referred to as "primitive" is offensive. Francis, thanks for your comment, and I agree; despite my thoughts on the matter (which are just my rumbles) about possible causes of the gaffe, it is offensive, and I am offended, together with most Kenyans. As i tweeted and said above:
    'However much we try to be analytical about the word primitive, if I referred to you as such you would be offended."

  4. Hey Terry, you forgetting the silver lining here. See how you are giving the company free PR? Well if you ask me, I guess there PR guy should be promoted for a job well done.

  5. @ Terryanne I see this as a lesson to the new entrants into these market; our lingua is unique and laced with so much meaning, it makes sense to allow your PR agency to actually give counsel on the content. I hope investors will see this and learn from it. Thanks for the post

  6. Its probably true that no offence was intended. It is also true that most airlines would be check their messages for cultural sensitivities before publishing.
    The trouble with firefighting is that burnt stuff remains just that, burnt!

  7. I think peeps just blew it out of proportion.. Reminds me of these pastors who go preaching to mashinani folk with 'interpreters' in tow- the result is a rib cracking comedy when you do a comparison of the two sermons, the English one and the other in the local dialect, I never heard Jesus complaining! So yes, somebody just got lost in translation.

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Do come back soon!