Thursday, July 7, 2011

I am a cunning linguist

Several years ago, I was sitting in restaurant with my grandfather (a man I’ve affectionately called “The Old Bastard” for as long as I can remember).

He was scowling, an expression he wears even when asleep, so I didn’t think to ask what was troubling him until he made a grunt of disgust.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered.

“Mexicans,” he muttered, nodding toward a family sitting nearby. “Jibbering and jabbering in Spanish all the time. I know they’re talking about me.”

It just so happens I’m reasonably fluent in Spanish, so I paused a moment to eavesdrop. Then I turned back to The Old Bastard.

“They’re talking about a sale on socks.”

“Mmph,” he replied, clearly dubious about my translation.

“Now they’re talking about whether the mashed potatoes are instant or homemade,” I continued. “The woman says they’re instant, but the guy says—”

“Mmph,” grandpa replied again, effectively ending the conversation.

As much as I joke about his somewhat narrow-minded view of the world, I have to admit it can be disconcerting not to know what someone’s saying about you in a foreign language.

A couple months ago, I got an email from the publisher of LoveLetter magazine, a monthly print publication for romance readers in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. I have no idea how she heard about me, but when she asked if I’d be willing to do an interview, I said yes.

I typed up my replies to her questions, sent the requested photos, and didn’t think much about it until last week when a package arrived at my New York hotel room where I was attending the national conference for Romance Writers of America.

I opened the envelope and saw this:
Click to make it bigger. Wow, everything should work like that!
I knew right away what it was, so I began to skim for something recognizable. The picture, I’m certain is mine. The words…well, I can only assume:

A closer look, just so you can see the text

I took the magazine to one of my housemates who speaks a little German. He opened it on the kitchen counter and began translating passages.

“It says you have one brother,” he reported. “And you grew up in Salem, Oregon.”

“Right, right,” I prompted. “Does it say anything weird? Like that I enjoy having sex with camels?”

“Not that I can tell.” He frowned. “Then again, I don’t know the word for camel.”

In a way, I don’t want to know what it says. Though it’s likely just a translation of what I originally wrote, I want to pretend it might actually be something better. Like maybe I’m a whole lot funnier in German than I am in English.

Do you have any funny lost-in-translation stories to share? Please do!

And in case you appreciate translation humor as much as I do, I encourage you to check out one of the most hilarious websites I've encountered, If you don’t laugh at least once by the time you hit the bottom of the first page, you’re dead inside.


Matthew MacNish said...

Everyone is funnier in German. And whenever I want to write really deep poetry, I just write something dumb, use the internet to translate it into Mandarin, and then use the internet to translate it back. It always come up with the most profound things.

Here is this same comment, through the filter of my madness:

Everyone in Germany funny. And when I really want to write poetry deep, I just write something dumb, the use of the Internet translated into Chinese, and then translated back through Internet. It always come up with the most profound things.

This is a weak example. Sorry.

Sarah W said...

Glückwünsche, Tawna!

I don't have a personal lost-in-translation story---though I can mangle English with the best of 'em.

But my Dad taught at the American School in Japan about fifty years ago (!). When telling stories of his time there, he'll occasionally look into the distance and mutter something about the difference between ordering an entree and propositioning a waiter in front of one's boss is all about the inflections.

Danica Avet said...

My aunt had a housekeeper from Ecuador when I was in high school. I was taking Spanish at the time and wanted to try out my mad skillz on her. I introduced myself with no problem, but when I tried introducing my brother, I told her that my sister's name was Phillip. She looked at him in shock until I realized what I'd said. Ah well.

I feel for your grandfather though. The aunt with the housekeeper is from S. Korea and when she would get together with her Korean friends, they'd speak in their language. There was a lot of hacking sounds that we interpreted as cursing and we all assumed she was talking about us.

Jason said...

Roommate's comment about not knowing the word for camels cracked me up - love how that leaves open the possibility that maybe they did indeed write about a passionate love affair. :)

As for Lost in Translation stories... My wife and I both understand Japanese reasonably well and there are plenty of Japanese in Portland. It amuses the hell out of us to eavesdrop, because it seems most Japanese don't consider the fact Americans - especially white Americans - could understand what they are saying. I cracked up once on the MAX downtown to something that was said and received a shocked look that only made me laugh harder.

Summer after my senior year in high school I worked as an English tutor at the Oregon campus of a Japanese college. In a break from their studies we took a group of the students to the mall to do some shopping they kept talking amongst themselves about all of the "gaijin" and what they looked like or were doing. Gaijin is the word for foreigner - at least, that's the way I learned it in class and how it's define in a Japanese-English dictionary. A fellow tutor and I tried to explain to them that here, in the U.S., they couldn't call us gaijin because we were not foreigners; that, in fact, THEY were the gaijin.

They adamantly said that was not possible. Very adamantly.

That was the day we learned the English translations for gaijin are not correct. It does not mean foreigner at all, in the sense we define it in English. It simply means non-Japanese.

Jason said...

And by the way, your title. Smile. :)

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I spent a few months in Spain when I was in college, and I went to Pamplona for the running of the bulls with some friends. Some guys kept following us and one of them tried to carry my friend off with him (she'd been drinking). I pulled her away from him, and, not knowing what else to say to make him back off, I told him I had a knife (I didn't). But the only Spanish word I could think of for knife was "cuchillo", and he started laughing, asking me if I was going to butter his bread for him too. Apparently cuchillo means butter knife or bread knife or something. But at least I got him away from my friend.

kah said...

How awesome! You're an international celebrity.

OMG. Camels. I'm dying laughing over here.

I used to be the office manager for a travel company and I'd have to create brochures for group travel vacations. One of our main vendors in Rio sent me the blurb for a restaurant they wanted us to promote and he TRIED his best to translate his message to English but it resulted in a serious moment of "What did this guys just say about his restaurant? THAT can't be what he meant."

It made for a good laugh around the office, and I was so glad I proofed it before giving the info to 500 guests.

PS...SO great to hang with you last week. You are everything and more than I hoped you would be. ;)

NotJana said...

No camels in there.

But there's a rat. As in you are a rat. A reading rat even. Does that help? LOL. Actually, it's slang for bookworm (as opposed to the 'proper' translation for bookworm which is literal).

I'm missing your voice, though. It's peeking out in the future part but that's it. So, at least in this little article, you're much funnier in English.

Which makes me wonder, is there a chance for Making Waves coming out in German in the near/distant future? It'd be interesting to see how your voice translates and I'd be out there, buying a German copy too (I've obviously pre-ordered Making Waves - even better it might be waiting for me when I return from my vacation!)

As for lost-in-translation stories - there are many :P. But one thing I've 'learned' from a French flatmate while studying in the UK - if you don't know the word, try using the one from your mother tongue and pronounce it with an English accent. It always ended with us laughing - either because we were surprised it worked or because our native speakers laughed at the wrongness of it all :). Good times...

Mark Simpson said...

I put off the foreign language requirement for my English degree until the bitter end, figuring I would take Spanish in the summer when I could focus on just that. I'd had two years of it in high school, but based on that experience I knew that for whatever reason for learning foreign language is for me like a cat learning to play piano.

But all they offered that particular summer was German, so six credits in three months later I can definitely help you with the translation.

Ok I lied. In spite of the mountain of flash cards I buried myself in I still was awarded C minuses in both courses--and that was clearly pure charity. (And THANK YOU professor whoever you were. Really.) So sorry, Tawna...I don't recognize a word.

However I was watching "Patton" on Netflix the other day and I'm pretty sure "panzer" means "tank", but I doubt that's much help. Oh and dog is "hunden" which I know because I had a "braunen hunden" and I thought calling him that was kind of cool since it almost rhymes.

Anonymous said...

Tawna, I agree with NotJana. It's a very nice profile, and I enjoyed reading it. No camels, no drama, nothing I think you'd find objectionable. But it's a little flat. It doesn't really sound like your voice, at least as I know it from the blog. :)

It's a fascinating question -- how to still evoke "voice" in translation?


Christina Auret said...

My lost in translation story is a bit different. I am completely bilingual in that I can speak two languages that I do not remember learning. English and Afrikaans.

Unfortunately sometimes when I speak in one of the two I get to a word that I can only remember in the other language. It happens both when I am speaking English and when I am speaking Afrikaans, but it is more problematic when I am speaking English because while most people who speak Afrikaans can speak English the opposite is not true.

The other problem is that even when correctly translated a word can have slightly different connotations. The correct translation for nice would be aangenaam, but aangenaam can have a bit of a dry, wry feel to it when used in a way that would give nice a more snotty feel. This can be very frustrating because no matter which language I converse in I end up wanting to use a word from the other language every so often because it would work so much better. I know I am not alone on this one because whenever I find myself in bilingual company we all end up switching and mixing every so often.

Anonymous said...

Long time reader, first time poster here. I'm a bit late to this but this post compelled me to comment for the first time!

I live in one of the countries that your magazine article is distributed in, and my funniest moments to date have been:

1/ the Husband (a native speaker of German), after hearing me pronounce the name of a clothing/shoe store *for more than a year*, finally pointing out that I wasn't pronouncing the umlaut in the name properly. Instead of saying the store name, I'd been referring to animals, doing *the deed* ....

2/ Going downstairs to tell the neighbor that her daughter's music was really loud, please turn it down. To try to emphasize my point, I said (or tried to anyway!) "Her music is so loud that I can't hear the TV in my own living room." The mother looked at me very strangely. So.... LOL!... I *repeated* myself. She sort of shook her head, closed the door, turned the music down.

Flash forward a year or more. I've had more German lessons, gotten more fluent. Walking through town, reading a flyer for the local gym club - which is abbreviated TV here. No wonder she thought I was nuts! I was saying "Your daughter's music is so loud I can't hear the gymnastics club in my own living room!"

btw - have your translation rights been sold? if so I'd be happy to look for a German copy of Making Waves in the wild...

Claire Dawn said...

Pays to be quintilingual! YAY! Of course, I'm convinced, ppl from countries with languages I don't speak will want to interview. Lots of Russian and Hindu, never any French, Spanish, Italian or Japanese. :(