Lost In Translation: On English FAILs Across Asia

When I was a kid, my Dad used to travel to Korea often on business and he’d always come home with gifts for me and my brother.  Now when I was very little, this was always exciting because he’d bring fun, transforming toys or Hello Kitty knick-knacks I’d never seen in the U.S. But by my pre-teen years, I began to dread these homecomings because he’d started to bring … CLOTHES.


As a pre-teen girl, I was pretty sensitive and particular about fashion. I wasn’t very conventional to begin with but I didn’t like to stand out. Although, I wasn’t aware that I already stood out at my preppy, D.C. area, private school in hand-me-downs from my six aunties.  While all the kids at my all-girl, predominantly white, Episcopalian school were head-to-toe in L.L. Bean, J. Crew and Laura Ashley, I wore oversized, neon, second-hand, ‘80s gear and carefully ironed my bangs into a little sausage roll across my forehead every morning.

I have no shame. I’ll share this photo. (c. 1989)

As I got older, my Dad started to bring home all sorts of strange, exotic clothing from the Mama-land – all, oversized, odd-colored and branded with random English words that would form non-sensical phrases. I was SO embarrassed.

One of the last outfits I remember that really horrified pre-teen Betty was a skirt/vest ensemble.  The skirt was literally like a large trash bag – it was made of a slick fabric with a sort of sheen and ballooned out like a ballgown. It cinched at the waist with a visible drawstring cord and the material gathered heavily around the midsection, just like a trash bag – as part of the “look,” I suppose. This monstrosity was colored a pukey, army green with neon orange trim. And of course, it had a few nonsense phrases vertically written in large, white, cursive script, from the waist to the bottom of the skirt.  Now if you can imagine this horrible idea turned into a vest, that was the matching piece up top. Hood included. The entire outfit looked maybe like a take on ‘Paratrooper, Military, Trash Bag Barbie.’

I was MORTIFIED at the thought of wearing this THING. But, I did my best to act enthusiastic to my parents.

Initially, there were a few occasions where I would be forced to wear these Korean ensembles by Mom and Dad. But, overtime as I got older, I managed to hide much of the clothing or “lose” them.

But now as an adult, I find myself WISHING I had saved these vintage pieces. In retrospect, they were amazing!

Traveling Asia as an adult, you’ll see all sorts of English FAILs on clothing and beyond.  It’s now one of my favorite things about traveling the mother continent.  It’s so fascinating and bizarre, there are many blogs and kitschy books inspired by nonsense English spotted around Asia.

Often, the awkward phrasing on signage results from poor translations – which you can only really grasp and comprehend if you know a second language, an Asian one especially. Your typical subject-verb-object composition of a sentence in Romance languages is entirely null and void in Asian languages – as well as entire words and meanings. And in some Asian languages, like Korean, the letters for “l” and “r” are the same; as well as “v” and “b” – which is why you have jokes in poor taste about “robster craws” and such. Ugh. :/

But, I digress – study some linguistics or learn a second language and you’ll get my point.

Of course I have my own theories on it as well. In the same way how, for centuries, Asian cultures have been fascinated with the art of calligraphy and typography, modern day Asian fashion carries on this traditional fascination of writing with English words grouped together in such a way to graphically look “cool.”  I mean, poor English on clothing is about as ridiculous to native English speakers as getting the Chinese character meaning “water” permanently inked onto your body is to native Chinese speakers.

Similarly, right now, the western fashion industry has been having a moment with French words scrawled across clothing. I’ve seen so many T-shirts with nonsense French all over NYC in the past year, I often wonder what native French speakers think of the trend. As someone who studied Francais for 10 years, I’ve had a laugh or two at some T’s I’ve seen.  And, then one day, I found myself buying a T with “Comme Ci, Comme Ca” across the chest.  Why? … Yeah, just because it looked COOL.  Whatevs.

At any rate, that’s my long-winded intro to share some of my favorite sightings of English FAILs from my Asia travels.






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