Learning to converse in another language keeps me humble. Beginning with English, as a child I made up funny words. I’d call the small blue round Midwestern fruit, bluebodies. My dad’s bluebody pancakes still are a family favorite.
In first year high school Spanish, I wanted to say, “I’m embarrassed” Tengo vergüenza. Instead I said, “I’m pregnant.” Estoy embarazada. I was unhappy to discover my mistake, but I had to laugh. The next week, my amigo made the same error, “Estoy embarazado.” He blushed at how “pregnant “ he was when he realized what he said. We learned that phrase was a false friend, an amigo falso.
Each decade as a Spanish apprentice, I think I know the vocabulary I need, until I travel to a new country. I learned the Mexican word for car, carro, in high school. But, arriving in Spain, carro means cart and I learned coche. In 2001, my husband and I lived in Chile teaching English. In Santiago I said to a friend, “There are many coches on the street.” She wagged a finger, “No, they’re not stagecoaches or baby carriages. They’re autos!” We giggled.
My Mexicanisms were perpetually misunderstood in Chile. Thinking of making a steak dinner for my husband and me, I ordered carne de res at a Santiago butcher shop one afternoon. The butcher almost fell on the floor. “Ha ha ha! What kind of meat?”
Thinking through my vocabulary, I volunteered, “Cow meat?” (carne de vaca)
He replied, “Meat” (Aha, in Chile carne means beef!)
I giggled. “Okay, half a kilo of carne!” The man with the red apron approved.
Another day, our Chilean friend and I conversed about fresh food from the daily market. He was a marvelous cook, making noodles and sauces from scratch. I told him I liked how the food he made had no preservativos, a false cognate. He sputtered, “That’s right, it has no prophylactics! It doesn’t have any preservatives (preservantes) either!” We belly laughed.
I wasn’t finished making embarrassing mistakes. Another amigo wanted to practice English and I was interested in speaking Spanish. Using a turn of phrase from Spain, I proposed an intercambio de lenguas. He snorted. “Are you sure? An exchange of tongues?!?” We cracked up. Well, let’s make that a language exchange… (intercambio de idiomas)
Take heart, adults learning a second language. From speaking Spanish, I’ve discovered making mistakes is not the worst thing that can happen. Never being wrong is. If we find humor in our faults, comedy puts us on the road to self-knowledge. Taking ourselves less seriously allows us to be transformed. It may be the path to inner peas. (Peace y paz ; )
Have you had a lost in translation moment? ¡Olé! –Rebecca
Revised from the May 9, 2018 post.