Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lost in Translation

Last night, while reading my book (yes, wearing all my warm finery), I came to a paragraph where Julia Childs describes her sister getting rear-ended by a Parisian driver. In total indignation she whips the car into park, sticks her head up through the sunroof and angrily screams at him, “ Ce merde-monsieur a justement craché dans ma derrière!”.  I get what she was trying to say but what she actually said was “ this shit-man just spat out into my butt!”

And so it goes. Trying to learn a language and being only partway there causes all sorts of these continual language mishaps.  At first you’re mortified by your mistakes, but eventually you learn to take them in stride and laugh them off. You have to. They happen every day.

Yesterday I was telling a friend a little story, in French, about John Travolta flying a jet to Haiti to deliver food and medical supplies…. and a few quack doctors. I never got to the quack doctors part because we got stuck on the first few sentences.

My story was interrupted as my friend cocked his head quizzically, and said “Vraiement? (Truly?)

Yes, really!

Mais, je ne comprend pas pourquoi! (I don’t understand why.)

Because he was trying to help, I suppose.

Non! C’est vrai?

Yes it’s true…why would I lie to you? He’s a pilot. He flew his jet. Nice, yes, but not that unbelievable.

This ping-pong game continued for several minutes until I finally realized what I had said and why all the skepticism. I had actually told my friend that John Travolta had stolen a jetliner in Florida and flew it to Haiti. And my friend was a little stunned by this news, particularly since he had heard nothing about it.

Last week I was happily bouncing around because I had gone all-out and purchased a new, heavy-duty frying pan. I excitedly told a friend, again in French, that I had bought myself a present…a new, big, strong…. chicken.

She questioned, in English (for clarification purposes), “You bought yourself a chicken?

I realized my mistake right there and without missing a beat, responded in French.

“Yes, and I’m keeping her on the terrace. She can’t escape and she gets plenty of sunshine.”

My German friend, Doreen, and I spend a lot of time trying to untangle the French language. We were tipping a glass of red the other night and laughing about our blunders and those of our friends in similar situations.

She recounted the tale of another of her American friends who was trying on dresses recently at a clothing shop. She emerged from the dressing room with a lovely dress on, after trying on countless, and said to the admiring clerk “I’m so beautiful but I’m just too tall”.  What she actually meant was  “the dress is lovely but it’s too big”.

There are also, of course, the gaffes that have more lewd translations but for today I’ve decided not to delve into the subject too deeply. I’ll save the best for another post. However, I will tell you that on one of my first outings here at a local bar, I apparently spent the good share of the end of the evening, insinuating to just about everyone that I needed to go to bed with them…right now.  I was so pleased to make so many friends that night! I still don’t know exactly what my mistake was so now I simply avoid the subject of beds, sleeping, going to sleep and anything even remotely close to that. It seems safer.

Often times, the problems originate from an attempt to try to translate English to French in a literal way. That seems to be where we all run into the most embarrassing language faux pas, but again, not here!

But it happens to the French too.  Lately, I’ve been working on earning my certificate to be a massage therapist (I figure it’s a job that requires very little conversation!) and a fellow masseuse gave me a list of French to English translations that she had been given at her former job. Apparently they had a lot English speaking clients.

I nearly split a gut (try translating that phrase literally!) when I saw what the therapists had been saying to their clients. So in English, one is supposed to greet the client with…”Good morning Madam (Sir, Young Lady). How can I feel you?”

Three pages of funny and bizarre translations follow, but my favorite is “for your information, don’t sit you to the right by returning because you have a buzzard of vapor which goes out at the level of the calf and it’s very warm.” I re-read this in French and through my laughter realized the proper translation would be “ be careful to not sit on the bench just to the right of the door because there is a steam nozzle at calf level and it could burn you”.

I’m not even remotely out of material on this subject and you can bet I will spend many years gathering more.  And I would love to hear anybody else's stories on language gaffes. Please!


  1. Oh my, the mistakes I made my first few years here - they are countless.

    When I went to visit my late dad in his retirement home a few years ago, one of the waitresses (we were dining in the restaurant that was in the home) asked me if I wanted custard or mustard with my beef. That brought home to me how easy it is to make mistakes in our language.

    Just like me muddling up sel and sal when in a restaurant :)

  2. I lived in Geneva, Switzerland twice.... made my kids learn French at their acoal (where they went to learn French). I could eat (pain (saidwhileholdingnose) doo almond, sea voo play), drink (vin (againsaidwhileholdingnose) rouge), and find a toilet (oo A la twalet, sea voo play). Mostly, I was good at, "Do you take VISA?" The response was always so much better once those words left my lips. "Wee, Madam, we do take VISA. What can I help you with?"

    So glad you stopped by my blog! I can see I am going to enjoy yours also! And since you already live in France and speak the language and can even write it, you're way ahead on the sidekick try-outs!!

  3. A young student I know asked her host family in the states if, after such a long voyage over, they wouldn't mind showing her where the bathroom was so she could "take a warm douche".... Those French girls...They are SO risqué....
    love your blog D

  4. Ahh yes Delana!!

    When I was in Argentina a friend invited me to Easter at their house. Naturally I begin talking to her 80 year old Grandma about my recent trip to the Boca Jrs. soccer stadium.

    The world for field (cancha) is very similar to (concha) which literally means Seashell but is frequently used as slang for a certain female body part.

    Now I was very aware of this potental landmine but I thought I had it straight. I was explaining to this poor old lady how exicted I was to finally see a concha in Argentina and how this concha is very special, etc. etc.


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