The Grammarphobia Blog

Lost in translation

Q: On the box of my Mr. Coffee, the “Easy to Clean Glass Carafe” is translated as Pot en Verre Facile à Nettoyer. Now you’d think “carafe” wouldn’t have to be translated! Maybe the translator charged by the word.

A: This is odd indeed, since English adopted “carafe” from French in the late 18th century.

If carafe is perfectly good French, why would a French translation use pot en verre (glass jar) instead? Have the French dropped the carafe, or what?

We asked our Parisian correspondent this question, and he thinks this is simply a bad translation. Here’s his reply:

“I have found commercial uses of the following for the carafe of a Mr. Coffee-type machine: (1) verseuse (from verser, to pour), a container with a spout of some sort; (2) carafe, for “carafe”; and (3) bocal, usually a jar (like a canning jar, a pickle jar, etc.) or a fishbowl, conveying the notion of a round glass container.

“Of these, verseuse is most common in the profession, while carafe is quite common in ordinary use. I myself would say carafe. A pot en verre or a pot de verre would be a bocal.

“So why not use carafe? Because most translations are crap. Businesses use machine translation, or they look around the world for the lowest bid on translation auction sites. You get what you pay for, and businesses that produce such basic stuff as consumer appliances don’t want to pay a lot.

“In addition, translations can go through strange channels. I could easily imagine that there was a first poor-quality translation from Mandarin to English that produced something like ‘glass bowl.’ That may have been corrected later on by the North American distributor, while the original bad translation went to a translator (perhaps a machine) that simply translated the original bad English pretty much word for word.

“I have had to translate into French some manuals that were written in such bad English that I hadn’t a clue as to what they were talking about. When it’s for electrical equipment, it makes me worry….

“In short: for a product description, the best choice would have been verseuse, while carafe would have been perfectly acceptable. It’s for that reason that I’m betting the French translation was done by a non-native speaker, based on an original bad English translation.”

That solves the translation mystery, and it explains why the instructions we’ve gotten with some appliances have been so perplexing. (Translation auction sites? Yikes!) Now for a bit of etymology.

“Carafe” first showed up in English in 1786 as a French borrowing, but it also has equivalents in Italian (caraffa), Spanish (garrafa), Portuguese (garrafa), and Sicilian (carrabba).

Some scholars, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, have also associated it with Persian (qarabah, a large flagon), and with Arabic (gharafa, to draw or lift water, and ghuruf, a little cup).

If you read novels of bygone days, you may have come across an older word, “carboy,” which means a large bottle covered with protective basket work. This word and “carafe” are probably distant relatives, since “carboy” is from the Persian qarabah and may also be related to the Arabic qirba (a large leather bottle).

But back to “carafe.” It entered English first in Scotland and later in England. Ever since, it has meant a glass bottle used for water—either at the table or at the bedside—or for wine.

The word’s association with coffee began in the early 20th century, when the OED says “carafe” came to mean “an insulated jug for serving beverages, esp. coffee; (hence, also) such a jug which is an integral part of a coffee-making apparatus.”

The OED labels this sense of the word as originally and chiefly North American. Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1911 ad in the New York Times for “Vacuum carafes, $5.”

A more recent citation can be found in Nicholson Baker’s novel A Box of Matches (2003): “Then you rinse out the filter basket and the carafe.”

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