Embarrassed in Translation

After reading this post, I began to recall my language gaffes and general embarrassments in Spanish. I might be good at Spanish, but that doesn’t prevent rather inopportune words from escaping me from time to time. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the times I say something foolish and the other person is too nice to correct me or burst into raucous laughter.

Source: BBC Languages

The first major language blunder I remember took place one fine spring day in 2008. I was studying abroad in Toledo, Spain, an enthralling medieval Spanish town, full of twists and turns and little plazas that popped out of nowhere. My Spanish intercambio (language exchange partner) and I were sitting at an outdoor café, sipping Coke out of glass bottles and chatting en español. I enjoy beverages with straws, but in Spain, it’s uncommon. Thus, feeling smart for having looked up the word previously and having remembered it, I sauntered up to the counter, where the bartender was wiping down the counter for the zillionth time. “Un pajilla, por favor,” I chirped with a rather too-large, smug smile on my face. Oh dearest me, I was getting good at this. Straw? Who knows that word in another language? Me, me, me – that’s who. With a bit of spring in my step, I walked back to my table, sat down with a flourish, and stuck my straw in my glass. Glass bottle Coke really does taste better, even if the 8-oz. serving meant I missed out on four ounces of delicious carbonated fizziness. I smiled at Alberto, my intercambio.

Let’s just take a moment to talk about him. He was tall, really cute, and had an adorable lilting accent. His English wasn’t so good, so we usually ended up speaking Spanish after he uttered sentence after sentence of pure gibberish to me. But, hey, for me it was beneficial. He was tall, too, with great style. (Why don’t American men have such style?) Anyway. I kinda sorta had the eensiest bit of a crush on him and thus always tried to look my best when we had our little rendezvous.

So, I continued on with our conversation. “Necesitaba una pajilla,” I said, hoping to hear him tell me what a good little Spanish speaker I was. To my dismay, however, his face turned the slightest shade of pink and he looked down at the table. I knew something was up. Chalk it up to a woman’s intuition. Yet I’d no idea what. Did I say something mean? was there spinach stuck between my teeth? did I have toilet paper trailing behind me from my shoe? I didn’t know. I had to ask.

“Hey,” I said. “What did I say?”

It took some persuasion, but he finally told me. I don’t know if you’ll get any subtle hints I try to make about it, so I’ll give it to ya straight…it means masturbation. Yeah…not something you really want to say in front of your foreign crushes. To this day I avoid saying the correct version of the word.

Other instances of embarrassment:

  • Talking about penne pasta with my Spanish father-in-law, when pene means a part of the male anatomy. You get the picture.
  • I told someone I was “embarazada,” which does NOT mean embarrassed, but rather “pregnant.” Yeah, oops.
  • I mentioned my love for strawberry preserves, when “preservativo” actually means, um, “condom.” Yikes.
  • I often mess up and say cojones instead of cajones. Cajones = drawers, cojones = balls.

What about you? Any embarrassing language stories?

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19 comments

  1. While I was living with a senora when I studied abroad in Barcelona, I tried to use to the expression “my eyes are bigger than my stomach”…but the meaning was definitely lost in translation on my senora because she kept scanning from my eyes to my stomach, trying to figure out how that could be possible. So funny!

  2. Hahaha, this post made me giggle so much! I have been in Spain less than a month and have already run into problems with “pene” and “cajones” v “cojones” … I never fail to embarrass myself!

  3. My first night out in Spain I was getting hit on by a man who I thought was wearing a wedding ring (it was on his left hand and I didn’t know it was more common to wear it on the right hand here in Spain) and I wanted to call him a pig because I “was sure he had a wife and 3 kids at home” (my exact words). I wanted to call him a pig but couldn’t remember “cerdo” and got all flustered and ended up calling him a “jamon” instead! I’ll never forget the look on his face and his confusion as he asked “Soy un jamon?” Then I yelled at him in English “You’re a pig!” like he would understand me!

  4. I am a high school exchange student studying in Spain right now. The first day of school a kid said “tienes animadoras” to me and I said “sí un gato” because I though he said “tienes animales”. The whole class just thought it was hilarious and made jokes about it the rest of the day! It was pretty embarrassing, but I never made that mistake again! :)

  5. I love this. I’m pretty good at Spanish myself, but the other day I was chatting with my Spanish roommate and made a HUGE mistake. (I should preface this by saying I hate the heat, so I’ve been more than a little uncomfortable in Madrid’s 90-degree-weather. I’m so happy it’s cooled down a bit.) Anyway, I was trying to tell Irene how hot I was, and I said “Me pongo caliente.”

    That was wrong. Apparently I said “I’m horny” instead of “I’m hot.”

    Of course, she immediately started laughing. I asked her what I’d said, and she kindly corrected me. Rest assured I’m going to be VERY careful with the verb “poner” in the future.

    1. Hahaha. I ordered a half pound of polla at a Mexican market back home last year. I was more mortified that after years of speaking Spanish I couldn’t say POLLO correctly! Now that I’m in Spain, I know I’ll have plenty of gaffes.. I’m realizing that I explain myself in English with a lot of idioms and sarcasm that does. not. translate. And I end up saying “no se explicar en castellano…..” followed by a long awkward pause.

  6. Haha those are great! The straw one happened to me as well. I rememeber learning the embarazada one in 8th grade Spanish and that stuck cause how embarrassing would that be! Haha. And I finally got cojones/cajones straight when I studied abroad because my friends roommate insisted on trying to be really cool and would try to swear in Spanish. Turns out yelling “cajones” when you’re pissed doesn’t get you very far.

  7. In your defense, pajilla is totally correct. I usually say cañita instead just to avoid awkwardness haha. Unfortunately, sometimes they give me a beer instead! Grr for double meanings

  8. On a similar note: I once turned in a paper without double checking that my auto-correct had correctly put in all the necessary tildes. I was one of the top students in my class, so when I turned in a 10 page paper talking about immigration in Spain throughout the “anos” my professor was pretty amused. He gave me an F, for (F)ailure to proofread. Luckily, I was forgiven and given the opportunity to turn it in again. I will never make that mistake again in my life.

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