Lost in Translation Anecdotes: Humorous Stories About Mistranslations

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?

< bad words lost in translation >

“I’d Like Some Breasts, Please?”

< lost in translation anecdote about chicken breasts >
Image via Flickr by Tom Coppen

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

< she wasn't kidnapped, it was lost in translation >
Image via Flickr by Newtown grafitti

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?

< lost in translation anecdote: movie problem >
Image via Flickr by andres.moreno

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?

< lost in translation anecdote: teats cream or teeth cream? >
Image via Flickr by OpenTheDoor

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?

< lost in translation anecdotes about monkeys >
Image via Flickr by marinagguerra

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 pork party >
Image via Flickr by Steve Slater (used to be Wildlife Encounters)

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 lyssie@shewenttospain.com. I’d love to add some more entertaining lost in translation anecdotes!!

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Lost in Translation

P.S. You  might also like 11 Travel Faux Pas to Avoid or 6 Best Mistakes to Make While Traveling

15 thoughts on “Lost in Translation Anecdotes: Humorous Stories About Mistranslations

  1. I love these stories, because with most of them, the person knows the right word (or close enough), and that’s not a guarantee they’ll be understood–there are still so many other things to think about! Language is ridiculously complicated, but I guess that’s what makes it fun.

  2. These are hilarious! Macaco! Pechugas! Amazing. I love these anecdotes of human miscommunication and language. Sometimes I’m sure they lead to much darker scenarios! Thank you for brightening up my day with these.

  3. This is HILARIOUS! lol It’s so funny what miscommunications can occur due to language and culture differences — though maybe not so funny at the time lol

  4. Loved these! When I was in Spain these things seemed to happen to us a lot, we once spent 30 minutes asking a guy in a local supermarket if he had mint until we finally googled it to find it was menta and he immediately understood us even though to us it wasn’t that different haha always a lot of pointing involved!

    1. HAHA macaco was one of my favorite mistranslations too!!!! There’s actually reaction widget that I installed recently but I wonder if it’s not working? I LOL’d writing this whole piece – one of my favorite blogs to write! 🙂

  5. Hahaha. This one cracked me up. I’m married to a Czech guy and I’m Kenyan we have a son and I don’t know how I’ll explain to him that Baba means Father in Swahili and Grandma in Czech 🙂

    1. This is so interesting…and so cool! So do you both speak a foreign language to communicate with each other? Your son will be so well cultured…the world needs more people like your family!

  6. These are hilarious! The only foreign language I speak is German, and most of the time the germans took pity on my attempts and responded in fluent English haha. This summer I’m headed to a rural-ish part of France though and I speak zero French, so that could be interesting.
    Great post!
    lily x

    1. In the Spanish cities, most people spoke English…but I lived in rural Spain so I just had to try my best! The Spanish people were amazing though. I’ve heard the rural parts of France have wonderful people too! I’m sure you’ll be fine – I’d love to check back in with you after a few months and see how you’re doing! 🙂

  7. Too funny! Reminds me of when I was in Quito, Ecuador trying to order a chicken dinner to go. I conjugated every verb I knew, and even pointed at the chicken, then at the door. Oh well 🙂

    1. My first time ordering food to go from McDonald’s in Mexico I did the same thing, I pointed to the door! The counter person then told me how to say it in Mexican Spanish (para llevar), but the language is different in different Spanish countries. Did you ever figure out how to say it in Ecuadorian Spanish?

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