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Translating English into English

September 7, 2019

I’m about to start directing this year’s panto and yesterday was filled with panto-related jobs, one of which involved finding a synonym.

The panto is Ali Baba and in it Ali works in his uncle’s shop which has a big banner outside reading: “KASIM BABA’S EMPORIUM OF TAT”. Now, as I said in a Facebook appeal to my mates, any Brit would know exactly what “tat” means. The problem is this word means nothing to the majority of Canadians and it’s not all that easy to translate. I am pretty sure 95% of an audience on the little island where I live would have no idea what tat is. I racked my brains and the closest I came up with was “crap” which is actually a very good translation. But the panto is a family show and I don’t want to have to deal with parents getting their knickers in a twist.

So I asked my mates if they could come up with an alternative. (Other, I said, than “shit” which is also a good translation, but even less likely to fly in a family friendly show.)

By the time I came back to the computer after watering the garden, many suggestions had been made, including trinkets, knickknacks, bric-a-brac, gewgaws, crapola and (by multiple people) kitsch. I quite liked crapola, although it, along with all the others, wasn’t really right. As I explained to the kitsch fans: whilst some kitsch is definitely tat, not all tat is kitsch. (Take it from the woman who has flamingos in her garden, three panther lamps and a collection of snow globes. I understand kitsch.)

Then one London mate suggested junk. Junk! Yes! Why hadn’t I thought of that? (I swear, you reach a certain age and it is unbelievable the number of times you find yourself saying, “What’s that word?”) Junk it is. Kasim Baba’s Emporium of Junk. Now all I have to do is order the sign.

My Facebook query did get me thinking of similar words, words that any Brit would instantly understand, but which would mean nothing to a Canuck or a Yank. Words like faff and naff and twee. How do you translate these?

Okay, faff is easy. Instead of “stop faffing”, you could just say “stop wasting so much bloody time”. But naff and twee?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of the adjective naff is “lacking taste or style”. Fair enough, but what would the North American equivalent be? Also, how did naff off come to be a polite way to tell someone to fuck off? Oh, guess what? According to the OED, the origin of the verb naff is a euphemism for fuck. (The origin of the adjective naff is unknown.)

And then there’s twee. OED definition: “excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty or sentimental”. This is the perfect definition of twee, but what the hell word could you use in North America?

Short pause while I try to find an image on Google for naff or twee. No luck. All I got for naff were images of some band called NAFF and all I got for twee were images related to some subsect of indie rock.

And then it struck me. What could also be more twee than this?

crocheted toilet roll covers

Crocheted toilet roll covers – twee personified and also fucking naff.

What adjective would a North American use to describe these, I wonder?

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