Woody Packard

Words + Pictures


Lost Without Translation
In my effort to learn Mongolian, I sometimes take visual notes home to work on at my desk, with dictionary in hand. For a week now I have been working on this sign, with no solution in sight except to ask a Mongolian who also speaks English. The words seem simple enough. The first sentence asks, "We (not (1. air, 2. without purpose, 3. do, make)) (be, become, get) who (1. air, 2. without purpose, 3. do, make)?"

Not exactly the same as the first, the second sentence asks,"(Present, Current, Modern) (not (1. air, 2. without purpose, 3. do, make)) (be, become, get) when (1. air, 2. without purpose, 3. do, make)?"

Clearly something is still missing. Does some context, the fact that this sign appears in a police department parking lot, help you? It hasn't helped me at all, and regardless of how I arrange the several meanings of the words in these questions, I can't imagine why they deserve a billboard, even a small one that piggybacks on the much larger sign on the other side. (For an electronics store.)

Being an illiterate foreigner has given me a new interest in signs. Unlike spoken Mongolian, which passes so quickly that only the most commonly used words are caught, signs, at least to a pedestrian, will wait for me as I puzzle over them. Most are not as difficult to understand as the example above, so that even if I don't understand every word, I can at least understand the purpose of the sign. Pictures certainly help. Someone believes Mongolians should buy their baguettes. Someone else makes parts for gers. In downtown Ulaanbaatar, someone wants you to know where you can buy oil filters and parts for the earth-moving equipment that is used in mines, or where to get your tooth fixed. On a hill high above Darkhan, someone is hoping that visitors to a shrine would behave more appropriately, the Mongolian equivalent of the many Ten Commandments signs in Kalispell, Montana. Once you have the general idea, the details are easier to work out.

Not all of my puzzling comes from language though. At the intersection of Peace and Olympic, one of the busiest corners in Ulaanbaatar, there is a billboard with the Czech Republic Development Corporation's name in one corner. A smiling Mongolian couple sits on what must certainly be a roll of wool, the man holding a white hard hat, the woman leaning in from behind in a short sleeved shirt. They and their bundle of wool have been stripped into an unimaginably green lawn, which surrounds a log house with a glazed tile roof. The Mongolian words, as best as I can translate them, refer to sheep's fleece and wool, and its beneficial qualities as thermal insulation and as a sound-proofing material. I did not translate the smallest type, but the take-away concept behind this sign remains uncertain. Are the Czechs hoping to sell wool to Mongolians? Perhaps they want to buy wool and use it to insulate log homes that are then exported to Mongolia. Either way, is a sign at this intersection, where drivers are intent on getting as close to scurrying pedestrians as possible, the best place to try to get that message across?

Mongolia is a country of fewer than three million people. Roughly half live here in Ulaanbaatar. Athough more than a few of these people are wealthy, even in the best of economic times, a much larger percentage have little discretionary income. Factor in a persistent high regard for traditional nomadic values, add a drop or two of nationalism, and you will share my curiosity about another billboard at that same intersection. It shows a white couple dressed in wool hats and sweaters, items that Mongolia has plenty of. "Hello Mongolia," they say. "We are from Italy." What do these people want from Mongolians?

Close Story—Back to Pictures


Click below to page through enlarged images or read the story.

Tooth's Hospital


New Old Construction

Temple Entrance


Master Dog Store

Mongolian Circus

French Baguette Suspense

Several Signs

Ovoo Do's and Don'ts

Video Billboard, Bloomberg TV Mongolia

Handbag Seduction

Frontal Handbags

We Are From Italy