Lost in Translation

Image taken by author of a sign on a door. Thi...

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Learning a new language is never an easy thing.  Sure, to some multilinguals, learning a language may come naturally but there are always nuances, figures of speech and idioms that don’t translate across cultures.

For instance, when I lived in the Czech Republic, my friend and I were sitting at a pub chatting it up with the bartender and asking him to teach us some Czech words.  Specifically, we wanted to say word to your mother.” Don’t ask me why now. We’d probably had too much Absinth by then. In any case, the phrase didn’t translate.

Of course, we also had to learn the common curse words of the culture, as one typically does when they learn a new language, so we asked him to translate “f**k,” “a**hole,” “b*tch,” and probably some others, just to prove how truly classy we Americans are. But, much to our disappointment and surprise, those words didn’t translate either. Instead of using the F-word, Czechs pepper the word “kurva” throughout a conversation – especially when it is a spirited dialogue. My Polish husband does it too, except for Poles it is spelled “kurwa.” It means whore. So they don’t say F-this or F-that, they say K-this or K-that. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person they are talking to is a whore, it’s just for extra emphasis.  Does that make sense?

We also walked around for about two weeks saying the phrase “Nevíš” incorrectly because we wrote it down wrong on a cocktail napkin. We thought we were saying “It’s too much” but were actually saying “You don’t know.”  Imagine the confusion we caused, when someone would ask us “Would you like to buy the scarf…get a drink…take a taxi?” And, we’d respond with a quizzical remark like “You don’t know.”  We did get quite a few stares.

There were a number of other appropriately inappropriate words we learned that day, but that’s really not the point.  The point is that language is never simple, even when it comes to a down and dirty expletive. Sometimes, words that don’t mean to be filthy can come out sounding that way.

Take my children as a case in point. Biz e-Baby1 has always been a quick learner of languages. She speaks English primarily, but also knows some Polish and Spanish. Like most little ones, her pronunciation isn’t always spot on, but as parents we tend to be able to understand our child’s version of communication. Biz e-Baby2 is now just forming short two and three-word phrases but is harder to understand him since he’s not quite two-years-old.  In our multilingual household, we quickly learned –quite by accident—that even innocent baby babble can turn x-rated.

Consider the following:

Psi  = dogs ( in Polish is pronounced “pSEE”)

Coming out of my son’s mouth, this word sounds like “pussy.” Not cool at the mall because the ladies in the pet store don’t know Polish.

Kwa = quack quack (in Polish is pronounced “kFuh”)

Coming out of my daughter’s mouth, this word had no “K” and just the “fuh.” My mom, who mistook it for “f**k,” politely asked us one day, “What DID she just SAY?!”

Clock (in English) even comes out wrong because both my kids say “cock.” They love to point at cocks on the wall wherever we go.

I know every language has its issues. It just so happens that it becomes embarrassing or funny (depending on the person) when these words slip out in front of some unsuspecting innocent bystander.

Surely, I am not the only parent who has had to repair some damage due to information lost in translation but it does make for great conversation even if I am not at a pub.

About bizemom

I am a busy working mom (get it... "Biz e-Mom"?) of three kids under the age of four. I have a white-collar day job, I have a night job as a mom, and an "in between" job as a freelance writer and blogger. What can I say, I am a glutton for punishment and I don't go to bed until 1 a.m. No matter how much I complain, I like being busy. That must be the Sagitarius in me--we get bored easily. Now on to the next adventure (I mean... venture!)
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3 Responses to Lost in Translation

  1. Fun and educational post. Yes indeedy, much is lost in translation between cultures. I can certainly attest to that after having lived in Japan for 10+ years. There, it’s an insult to call someone gokiburi (cockroach). I still find myself thinking or speaking certain Japanese phrases that have no American counterpart because the Japanese word is spot-on. BTW, here’s a fun site to check out before you make your next trip: http://www.insults.net/html/world/index.html

  2. Abbe says:

    Fakt? Czech for really; sounds like f**cked. Certainly funnier out of the mouths of babes.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Lost in Translation | Biz e-Mom.com -- Topsy.com

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