Friday, April 26, 2013


I was recently reading a friend's account of misadventures in foreign language and it reminded me of my two favorites- neither of which, it appears, have I yet related to you fine people.

One:  I spent my junior year abroad in France, where I stayed with a host family for a couple months.  The hostess once said to me "Ah oui, mon fils, il était pédéraste mais alors maintenant il est pacsé et lui et G., ils ont un enfant." *  The problem is, I thought she said "Il était pédophile", so I just smiled and nodded and thought WHAT??? and got out the big dictionary when I got home.

(There are a lot of words you don't learn from reading 18th century literature. Aside from de Sade.)

Two: Another time, I was working as an interpreter and we went to immigration court.**  They didn't close the previous hearing, so I heard an extremely amusing case with two South American brothers, in the US with employer-sponsored visas for skilled trades.  The lawyer got up at the beginning and said "Your Honor, we're here because in the initial application we incorrectly answered 'yes' to the question 'Have you ever been arrested for a felony?'.  In fact, these men were taken to the police station for questioning, but they were never arrested or charged."  Then it went on in mind-numbing detail with an interpreter over the phone, and then it ended and the interpreter hung up,*** and the judge granted the visas officially.

THEN he asked the brothers "So what really happened?"

One of them got up and said "Oh, Your Honor, we were at work, and my wife and his girlfriend, they got into an argument, and one of them killed the other, but we were at work. Only two people know the truth, and eh, one of them is dead and the other one is in jail."

The judge said, "Hmm," and then they cleared the court for our hearing.  Which was much, much, much less amusing.  (Rwanda; not amusing.)

* "Oh yes, my son, he was a pederast [homosexual] but now he's in a civil union with G. and they have a child."  I thought she said, you know, PEDOPHILE.
** I was not the court-provided interpreter, but there in case of errors.  He didn't know the word for 'whip.'  Of course, my brain stuttered to a halt in horror a few times, during interviews: once over 'fusiller', once over 'and then after the rape I escaped barefoot across a river in the night and miscarried', and once over 'the soldiers burnt down my house'. 
*** The rules of immigration court require that non-native speakers of English be provided with an interpreter, and that hearings be conducted in their native language, regardless of how well they speak English.  In case you're wondering.


  1. Anonymous9:05 AM

    Good lord, I can't imagine what it must be like to hear that sort of thing without preparation. Especially Rwanda. Especially.

    1. The worst one was when I was called in fill in, and I had to cold-read off a written statement (one of the parts of asylum is where they asylum-seeker certifies that the statement has been provided in their native language and is to the best of their knowledge true and correct). So I'd never heard any of it, and I'm reading along translating out loud as I go, it's just getting worse and worse (and then they arrested and tortured me, and then the police officer raped me, and then I escaped across the river barefoot, and then I discovered he'd given me HIV, and then I had a miscarriage) and I'm practically in tears and the woman's like yes, yes, moving on, I have things to do today....

      But don't worry! We also had Uganda, Congo, and Ivory Coast!!!

      "To be executed by a firing squad" doesn't come up much in 18th century French literature, let me tell you.

  2. Here are a couple more "lost in translation" accounts. A few months after coming to the US, my dad had a huge scare at work. He heard one of his co-workers say he was bringing a Browning to work - o no! my dad thought - a gun! Turned out it was Brownie - for a potluck lunch.

    Some of the immigrants from Eastern Europe can't distinguish long vowels (ie sheep) vs short vowel (ship) - it sounds the same to us. The problem is, sheet and sh*t comes out the same, too. I have to really watch it if I am talking about sheets of paper :)

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