Shuffling through the fun, but chaotic gathering of authors and larger-than-life book characters at last weekend’s Children’s Book Festival in Savannah, my six-year-old, Marcos, jumped in front of his sister and yelled, “Entra!” with a hand wide open, waiting for a High Five slap in return.

With us was Marcos’ good buddy, Anna Isabella, whose family is from Panama. It’s all Spanish in her house, but she was confused by what Marcos had just said. Ditto for her mom, Erika, who also chimed in: “How does he say High Five?”

Anna Isabella and Marcos High Five

In classic Spanish, entra, is a command to come or go in, but in Cuba it takes this different form.

Erika, who has been in the U.S. for about 10 years with husband, Abdiel, knows the expression as either a Spanglish High Five (in this case, meaning a word in English pronounced with a Spanish accent), or classic Panamanian, Choca Las Cinco, which translates literally to something like “crash the five.”

Translations are a fascinating thing, varying from country to country, causing even speakers of the same language to scratch their heads at times.

I fell victim to British English briefly living in Budapest in 2002.  I became good friends with an expat from England who used a lot of phrases that I don’t, though they are easy to surmise: watching the telly, taking the lift, going to the post and meeting at her flat. But when she mentioned something about an aubergine I had no idea what she was talking about.  I felt ridiculous asking and then learning that it is eggplant.

When another Panamanian friend, Karina, and her Cuban husband, Santiago, lived in Puerto Rico during his medical school years they went to a restaurant with outdoor seating where bugs jumped in and around the table. “Los bichos estan matando,” she said, noting that the little pests were driving her nuts. What she didn’t know is that in Puerto Rico bicho is vulgar slang for a part of the male anatomy. The waiter’s eyes popped and asked: “What did you say?” She repeated and he went flat on the floor in laughter, teasing her the rest of the meal.

Of course, it’s far easier to get lost in translation among different cultures and languages.

As a college student in Spain, I flashed beet red one night as I innocently tried to say that I was hot with the heat cranked in the apartment I shared with three Spanish roommates, none of whom spoke any English. They howled, telling me not to say what I had just said out on the street. I don’t need to literally translate that one, but you get the idea.  I still blush at the thought.

Another spoof was while visiting Cuba in the early stages of dating Luis. I was still trying to wrangle Spanish and I told my now mother-in-law, Ana, that I was embarazada for embarrassed, only to, yes, embarrass myself further. I had just told her I was pregnant.

On the flip side, when Luis had been here maybe a year or so he was talking to someone I knew from my childhood, who asked him about my mother. In lieu of saying she had passed away several years prior, Luis delicately told the man that she had passed out.  Taking the sting out of something so serious, I giggled for months about that, and still do, vowing to respond to anyone who asked with the same wording.

When I ask my friend, Rocio, who is from Cuba and lives in Statesboro, about translations gone awry she tells me she is forever referred to as Mr. Rocio, as most tend to associate the last letter of her name with a male.  She was also once particularly confused when asked by a nurse if she had ever had chicken pox. She thought she was asking her if she had some sort of disease that chickens have.

Pronunciations can be as funny and provide an ongoing source of teasing in our house.

A few months ago, Luis walked in the door and announced he was going to make Cahoon chicken.

“Cahoon chicken?” I asked.

He showed me the spice: Cajun seasoning.

Luis caught the mishap just as he looked at it and together we roared. Now, every couple of weeks or so I ask if we can have my new favorite dish, the Cahoon one.

The stumbles are silly, but intrinsic to our blended pot of family and friends, and make for great laughs on a regular basis.

One of my next projects will have to be a collection of similar stories from around the world.

Check out funny signs.

6 thoughts on “LOST IN TRANSLATION

  1. One of my favorites is the way my husband says Botox, he pronounces it buttocks. So Botox is now being used in pain mangagement for certain procedures. We had a patient that was huge GSU football player with neck pain. Orte tells him he is going to try a Botox injection which comes out buttocks injection. The poor football player had this really confused look on his face, and the medical assistant in the room was laughing hysterically…

  2. Ah my sister…I can add some to your “archive!”

    Similarly in German you cannot directly say “Ich bin heiss” for I am hot – as in warm (perhaps because there is no airconditioning anywhere!)…you must say “mir ist warm” unless you want to announce your horniness to the world…

    And the German word for humid is just a slight pronunciation off from the word for homosexual…so I am often heard to commenting “how homosexual it is outside today!”

    The Germans think the English additon of a “y” at the end always applies…so an evening out with friends was very “funny” even if no one was telling any particularly good jokes that night. Just add that “y” on to fun and away you go!

  3. Lee! So happy to hear from you! This has been my favorite post, as I have heard so many funny translations from around the world. Love it! I will advise soon….you are my Americana in Germany (or what is American in German?)!

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