Self-help versus Helping Oneself and Well Wishes versus Wishing Wells

By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations

Getting help on the road to self-help!
Getting help on the road to self-help!

This morning I went to the local English-Speaking Club’s weekly Coffee Klatch. Sometimes there are native Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch and Polish speakers but this morning there were just the usual suspects: a Yorkshire man, a former California girl (that would be me), a couple of native Swiss-German speakers and four local francophones. Of those francophones, one lived in Germany as a child and grew up speaking both French and German, in addition to learning to speak Italian and English as an adult. Another lived in China as a child and was educated at English-speaking schools there. The usual Swiss Tower of Babel.

I had lunch with a couple of friends from the English-Speaking Club, one of whom had been at the Coffee Klatch. He was wracking his brains to remember an English word the native Swiss-German-speaker who’d been sitting across from him at table this morning had used on another occasion when offering him dessert. “It wasn’t a piece of cake, nor a slice of cake, nor a serving of cake.” I’m usually pretty good at coming up with the correct word but I was stumped. My friend and I agreed we’d hit the dictionaries after lunch and the person who came up with the word first would win the prize.

My friend won the prize. The word in question was a “helping.” I had gotten stuck because I thought my friend had been trying to remember a word that referred to something that could be defined as a “piece” or a “slice.”

For those readers who are not linguists, teachers, translators or interpreters, let me tell you that “help” is a four letter word! Nevertheless, it’s a word that can give insight into the labyrinth of changing words and meanings in one language into words and meanings in another tongue. In general, the English verb “to help” translates directly into French as “aider.” The English distress call, “Mayday!” is pronounced exactly the same as the French “M’aidez!” which means, quite simply, “Help me!” from which phrase the English term derives.

Self-help, to lend a helping hand, to help up, to help out, to help in, all these expressions keep the primary meaning of “to help.” But “a helping” is something else: it is “a portion of food served to one person” according to my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. No separate derivation or explanation of “a helping’s” deviation from the primary meaning of the word “help” is given.

“The hostess gave her guest a generous helping of….” or, “the guest took a second helping of….” This was the meaning my friend was searching for.

My friend is fluent in both French and German. The syntax of the two languages is different. Trying to figure out the nuances of the English verb “to help” versus the noun “a helping” with that linguistic background had to be confusing. “Self-help,” for example, means to go to Alcoholics Anonymous or to engage in some other form of advancing oneself towards a desired goal, while “to help oneself” to something just means to take another piece of pie from the platter.

When clients of Adarve Translations write or dictate a piece to be translated, they are for the most part unaware of the linguistic minefields that common four-letter-words such as “help” can create.

Well wishes to wishing wells!
Well wishes to wishing wells!

Regular readers of these pages might remember an example we gave a few months ago, when another friend consulted a computer translating program when she wanted to wish her son’s Japanese-speaking fiancée well. Instead of conveying good wishes, the computer program had her saying that she wished the young lady a hole in the ground from which she could obtain water. Well, indeed!

Many words have similar-but-not-the-same, contradictory or totally unrelated meanings, depending upon how they are pronounced, spelled, or in what context they are used. Perhaps, one day, computer programs will be able to discern the nuances between “self-help” and “helping oneself,” and “well wishes” and “wishing wells.” Until that day comes, please help yourself to the helping hands of reputable translation bureaus like Adarve Translations, organizations that can translate important nuances beyond the capabilities of computer translating programs.

All the best,

Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC

 

Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual.
Adriana Adarve
Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.
Donnamarie Leemann

About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.

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