If you’ve ever tried learning another language, you understand how hard it is. You know that even one small letter change can change the whole meaning of a word, which could attract lots of tilted heads, strange looks, uncontrollable laughter, or maybe even security protocols. Here are some of the funny stories I’ve experienced in learning Spanish and my foreign friends have experienced in learning English. Do you have your own lost in translation anecdotes?
“I’d Like Some Breasts, Please?”
The first of our lost in translation anecdotes happened during our first month in Spain. James was trying out his Spanish, trying to order some chicken breasts from a local market. The couple that owned the store were probably in their 30s and the wife worked the deli in the back. We had learned that the translation for chicken breasts is “pechugas de pollo,” literally “breasts of chicken.”
James was getting so good at ordering it that, instead of ordering chicken breasts, he started slacking (as we sometimes do in English) and ordered only pechugas. If you thought it translated literally to “chicken breasts,” it would have worked fine. But remember it translates to “breasts of chicken,” meaning that “pechugas” means “breasts.” So James asked the deli woman for breasts. She seemed confused so he ordered it again. He managed to get his point across by pointing to the chicken, and all was well.
Later that night, we went out with some of our new Spanish friends and were telling the story. He was telling it in English, but he wanted to make sure everyone fully understood his mistake. He used gestures to confirm what he had said. That was just the icing on the cake, watching him act out the word breasts.
I Want Kidnap
After the breast story, my Spanish friend shared one of her own lost in translation anecdotes. She went to a restaurant and wanted a napkin, which is a much harder word in English than in Spanish (servilleta). She accidentally switched the syllables and asked for a kinnap. The waiter thought she was saying she had been kidnapped and started panicking. It wasn’t until she pointed to a napkin that he realized she was just reversing the syllables.
Do You Have Any… Movies?
During our first week in Spain, we had a TV but no cable. We decided to buy a cheap DVD player because it would be easy to find movies with English subtitles. How hard is it to find DVDs, we thought? The first two places we went had nothing. The third time is a charm, right? We walked in and asked for “peliculas,” which I learned in high school Spanish class meant “movies.” The guy’s eyes lit up and he ran into the back and came out with pornos. I’m still not entirely sure where I went wrong there, but we had to avoid that store for a few months after that.
Excuse Me, Where is the Teats Cream?
A Brazilian guy had been learning English for many years and spoke it really well, but as many foreign language learners can understand, there are many words that you don’t learn in a book that you have to use in real life. The first time he ran out of toothpaste, he didn’t know the word in English and didn’t know how to find it in a store. He translated it online and in Portuguese, “creme de dentes” translates literally to teeth cream.
He went into Target and asked an older female employee where he could find the teeth cream, but in a Brazilian accent, it came out as, “Where is the teats cream?” She took it in stride and asked him again what he meant, and he asked again for teats cream, but this time pointed to his teeth. She finally understood that he was asking for teeth cream, and said to him for future reference, “Teeth cream” (pointing to her teeth), “Teats cream” (pointing to her chest). I think he learned the word toothpaste pretty quickly after that.
You Like to Play With… What?
In Brazil, there are wild monkeys everywhere. The same Brazilian guy from the lost in translation anecdotes above decided to catch one when he was little and turn it into a pet. Fast-forward to present day. He was at a dinner for his job with his CEO and VP and all of his American coworkers were talking about pets they had as children.
When he joined the conversation, he didn’t know the word for monkey in English, but in Portuguese the word is “macaco.” He announced to everyone, “When I was little, I used to play with macaco.” Say it out loud to yourself and hear it. Everyone stopped eating mid-bite and the CEO asked, “What did you play with?” The Brazilian guy realized his mistake and immediately googled a translation to correct it.
Black Pork Party?
Black Friday is famous in America and infamous around the world. Crazy people wait in line for hours overnight in the freezing cold to get unbeatable deals on Christmas gifts. However, lately some people have started boycotting Black Friday and having parties instead. This year, my cousin and her Belgian husband had plans to go to a Black Friday barbecue. “Black Friday barbecue” is a tough phrase to remember for someone who’s fifth language is English, so you can imagine her husband’s struggle. When telling my cousin’s boss that they were headed to a Black Friday barbecue, he mistakenly said, “We’re headed to a Black Pork Party.” I mean, I get it.
Shockers and Prescriptions
While in Spain, I ended up adopting a cat that followed me home and wouldn’t leave (I mean, I wasn’t complaining). Thus, I assumed all veterinarian responsibilities too. Finding a vet in a small town where no one spoke English was exciting. Luckily, my British neighbor knew a guy who spoke pretty good English. Side note: it turned out he was from a small Spanish territory in Africa. Pretty cool, huh?
I’ll skip the gory doctor details about poor Fred’s trips to the vet. But they did give me the chance to have a few fun and funny talks with his doctor.
The first one had to do with a dog that Dr. Segundo Sanchez Navarro was training. The dog was black with white feet, so Segundo introduced him to me as Shockers. I was like, “Okay, Shockers is an interesting name for a dog,” thinking to myself that I only know two definitions of the word “shocker” and one of them isn’t that pretty. He said to me, “Yes, because his white feet.” Okay, so his white feet made him a shocker? After a few more conversations with Segundo about Shockers, he slipped and called Shockers by his Spanish name, Calcetines. Shockers real name was Socks.
The second was my mistake. I wanted a receipt for the visit and was trying to practice my Spanish. I thought I knew the word for receipt. Receta looks like receipt, sounds like receipt, and in my mind…it was receipt. So I kept asking for a receta and Segundo kept asking me why I needed a receta and he couldn’t give me one. I tried in English but he didn’t know the word “receipt.” We were both getting frustrated because obviously there was a miscommunication going on here, so I took out a piece of paper and wrote some words with prices next to them. Then he told me I wanted a recibo, and a receta is a prescription. No wonder he couldn’t give me a receta!
This is meant to be a compilation and I’m constantly adding to the list. Do you have any lost in translation anecdotes you want to share? Leave me a story in the comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to add some more entertaining lost in translation anecdotes!!
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