Foreign words in a foreign country
Because I knew a few Japanese phrases, I thought I could shop in Japan easily.
“How much?” I asked a street vendor in Japan years ago. <!–more–>
However, the vendor instantly clouded my brain. As unloading bullets from a gun, he spoke five to six sentences ceaselessly. I wanted to ask him to be more concise, precise.
Heck, I didn’t even know the word for precise in Japanese. I wish I could say, “Not so fast. Give me just the answer,” “Don’t talk too much,” or “Don’t act too smart!”
Finally, I looked at him in dismay and walked away, leaving him confused.
No translation needed
“Hot dog,” my Japanese sister-in-law said to the waitress in a Japanese-style Denny’s restaurant, although she speaks little English.
“That’s English,” I said.
The waitress took the order quickly. Apparently, some terms are better untranslated.
The original expression will do the job. If my relative had translated “hot dog,” the waitress might have thought she wanted a cooked dog.
Do you need to shower?
Many Taiwanese friends shared this joke with me when they first came to America.
“Baby showers and bridal showers, does it mean you need to take a shower before you attend a baby party? Because one might carry too much germs?”
“Is water the key element to play with for a bride?”
You have a date!
The first time I was asked out on a date in college, my dorm mates smiled. “You have a date tonight?” they asked.
I scratched my head. “You mean a date to eat or do I write down the date for something?”
Avocado makes you fat?
My mom loves avocados but is afraid to eat more than one piece at a time.
Why? Avocados are translated as “butter fruit” in Cantonese. “It has a lot of fat,” my mom reasoned. My mom doesn’t know how much she misses out on. The fruit has nearly 20 vitamins, minerals, and beneficial plant compounds that can contribute to the nutrient quality of your diet. And those fats are considered good fats.
Whoever translated avocado did a disservice to folks like my mom, who are scared of grease.
“Troi dat, oi!” is a Vietnamese phrase that equates to “Oh, man!” or “What the heck!” or “Oh my God!” My editor, Stacy Nguyen, of Vietnamese descent, likes to say it a lot. Her non-Vietnamese friends have asked her what it means. It’s a weird translation because literally it means, “Troi — sky, dat — ground or earth.” What an awkward phrase to yell out in English when you’re mad or frustrated!
Keep it simple
Just because someone is bilingual doesn’t mean he or she can do a good job translating.
At a Chinese community event, guests were invited to say a few words. To show off, the speakers would speak in English, then translate into Mandarin and Cantonese. Some Guests got stuck in English and Cantonese.
For those who knew all three languages, it was boring to watch. And it was a waste of time because other speakers would follow the example of the first speaker and translate their speeches, too. Then, people starting talking, not listening. Dinner ran late. The program went on and on, and the guests went home grumbling.
Have your own lost in translation story? Drop me line. ♦