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?