Lost in translations

Laughing lady

Wonder what amused her? Image of Kuala Lumpur lady courtesy of anuarsalleh, Wikimedia Commons.

Living in a cosmopolitan area like I do, I often meet people who have emigrated here from other countries in the Middle East, Central America, South America, Asia, Africa and other parts of the globe. It’s fun to meet people like this.  I love to hear their backstories about the country they came from, learn a bit of their home culture and discover why they chose to emigrate here to the U.S.

A few months back, I was helping a friend at a business conference oriented toward Asian-Americans, and I got into conversation with my fellow attendees over lunch. Some of them came from countries such as South Vietnam and Korea, and I asked them what was the most difficult thing to learn about America. For many, it wasn’t just the culture; it was the language.

English is a difficult language to learn and has many pitfalls, especially if one is learning English as a second language. I admire anybody who takes on the job of speaking, writing and reading English, especially when they’ve had the the nerve to make the drastic change of moving from one country to another.

Even a native-born speaker like myself has the occasional slip. I’ll say something to a friend and realize too late that what I said could be taken the wrong way. And while the friend dissolves into laughter, I’ll start giggling myself while protesting, “Wait! Wait! I didn’t mean it that way!”

Maria von Trapp, in her book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, talked about how hard it was to learn English and how funny situations arose when she used the English idioms she learned. She quoted a hilarious story where she and a bishop were trying to go through the same door, and each was determined to let the other go first, out of politeness. Finally, Maria had to say, “P-lease, Bishop….scram!” It worked. The bishop’s advisors were scandalized, but luckily the bishop had a great sense of humor.

But I guess any language can have its funny pitfalls. Case in point: German. I speak some German, having learned it at school. One of the first things I learned was not to use the words “heiss” (hot) and “kalt” (cold) when talking about how I felt in hot weather or cold weather; you have to use the words “warm” or “kühl” (warm or cool). If you use “heiss” or “kalt” in German when you’re referring to yourself, you’re making references to your love life, and people start snickering.

Blog readers: Know of any other pitfalls in English or other languages?


Filed under Writing

17 responses to “Lost in translations

  1. I lived in Israel for 9 years and always sounded like a slightly retarded third grader. Okay, second grader. Hebrew only has three tenses: past, present, future. No subjunctive, no complex tenses. You cannot translate English directly into Hebrew or vice versa. You have to think in Hebrew to speak it and I never quite got there. Worse, there are no vowels. The vowels are inferred because you recognize the shape of the letters and thus know how it’s pronounced. I developed a pretty good passive understanding, but never learned to speak it beyond the most basic level. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to learn English as an adult. Note: My son was nine and in 6 months was speaking Hebrew like an Israeli.

  2. Speaking of smattering of German-I took my high school German with me when we visited my mom’s homeland for three months. I understood much more than I could speak the language. Whenever I attempted humor they all tried to correct me. It must be frustrating not being able to truly express oneself due to lack of fluency. I know I was frustrated, so I always try to be sympathetic to my foreign exchange students.

    • Even if you can’t say it, sometimes you can get your meaning across with facial expressions and hand gestures. And isn’t it a strange feeling to walk down a street, conversations going on all around you, and not understanding a word? I felt that way when I visited Luxembourg City.

  3. I put my kids in French immersion just so they could laugh at my attempts to read their dictee words

  4. My son once went into a monologue about his gripes with the quirks of the English language (English is our native language). “Silent letters,” he said, “what’s up with them? And why are there two ‘o’s’ in zoo? Why not three or four?” He just went on and on. I couldn’t stop laughing.

  5. I always enjoy the episode of I Love Lucy where Ricky is trying to learn to read English and stumbles over all the “ough” pronunciations. English must be so very difficult for other languages.

    I’m learning Spanish, a little a time, because I work around a lot of Hispanic people. I was warned once, not to use the word “caliente” to refer to the heat outside for the same reason you learned not to say “heiss” or “kalt.” 😀

  6. My hat is off to anyone who learns another language.

    • Mine, too. A professor once told me that it takes at least 6 years if you’re learning it in class, but the time is shortened if you’re living in that country and you see, hear, read and speak it every day.

  7. Eagle you’re forgetting one of the most unusual German to English faux pas. In english to give someone a gift is a good thing, but in german das gift means poison! Ist ein guter post! 😉 Tu escribes muy bien! 🙂

  8. Where I come from referring to the other in the conversation as ‘boy’ (usually pronounced b’y) is a signal that you are equals and expect a degree of informal latitude if difficult ideas are discussed. It is essentially a non-gender-specific term that signifies mutual respect.
    But only here in Newfoundland-Labrador, Canada. Elsewhere use of that term generally signifies the exact opposite…
    …leads to some awkward moments for those not in the know :>)


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