We’ve all been there. We are trying to translate something completely innocent and it ends up being misunderstood. Sometimes it’s hilarious and other times it can lead to embarrassing situations. What are we to do in these situations? You might ask why these occurrences happen and sometimes it’s just the language being its quirky unique self. That’s right! It can be quite unavoidable at times. Especially, if the change in dialects causes one word or phrase to be perfectly innocent in one dialect become incredibly vulgar in another dialect. Spanish is incredibly guilty of this! Check out this example from FLAMA:
Another example is Finnish! This language can be so complex that something completely innocent like the phrase: “Tahdon rippumattomammaksi” means both “I want to be more independent” and it also means I want to be a hammock mother. Which is quite strange to say the least. But that’s not the only example that Finnish has to offer. Here’s another one:
As you can see in the image to the left, that is a lot of complexity for just one phrase. It definitely adds more to the language but it would seem that context would matter a lot with Finnish or you could accidentally say something completely absurd. Which can be quite embarrassing to say the least. Many times, words that trip us up the most are words that look similar or spelled exactly the same as a word in our native language. False friends can be our worst enemies when it comes to making progress in our target language. A common mistake for English speakers to make is to confuse the Spanish word Embarazada (“Pregnant”) for the word Embarrassed in English. Which has two totally different meanings altogether. Even though, they technically share a common root from the Latin language.
Is There A Way To Prevent These Blunders?
Simple answer: No. Just let these blunders be hilarious lessons in your language journey. Knowing what these unintentional mistakes are can actually help take your language learning to the next level. Because once you are made aware of these blunders, the chances of you making them again are very slim to none. That funny or embarrassing situation will remind you of what to say instead. Just like this exchange student in Sweden did!
The process of learning Swedish was not entirely painless. I once asked my hairdresser if she had time to put ‘flingor’ in my hair. Turns out, the word I really wanted was ‘slingor’, for ‘highlights’. Instead, I had asked her to put breakfast cereal in my hair.
There are books (affiliate links ahead!) for learners of Italian, French, and Spanish to help you correct common mistakes made by beginners of each of these languages. I actually used to own the Italian and French versions of these books and there are a very useful reference for learners of those languages. However, just like any resource I recommend, use it as a supplement and not the end all way to learn your target language. Use them for what they are. Which is a quick reference. Take what you need and discard the rest!
These mistakes can also give you the much needed insight on how to use verbs your target language.
For example: To say “I am finished” in French, you would say “J’ai fini” (lit: “I have finished”) as opposed to Je suis fini (“I am dead”), which as a totally different meaning to say the least.
My Own Language Learning Blunders
I think it’s safe to say that when we are in the beginning stages of learning a new language, we are prone to making a wide variety of mistakes. One of the most remember mistakes I made personally was saying something along the lines of: 「麗美ちゃんは従妹をやった。- Reimi chan wa itoko wo yatta.」instead of saying 「麗美ちゃんは従妹の家で○○をやりました。-Reimi chan wa itoko no ie de ___________wo yarimashita.」So what I ended up accidentally saying in Japanese was something along the lines of: Reimi f**ked her cousin instead of “Reimi did _________at her cousin’s house”. Which was absolutely humiliating to say after realising that I completely forgot to add context to what I was saying. Which is incredibly important to do in Japanese or something unintended could be implied from it.
Another mistake I made was trying to translate the following phrase into German: “Instant gratification is unrealistic” for the #iglc – Instagram Language Challenge hosted by Lindsay Does Languages every month. Which I thought was translated as: “Sofortiger Befriedigung ist unwahrscheinlich”. However, I was kindly informed by a lovely German native speaker that what I wanted to say was: “Sofortiger Genugtuung ist unwahrscheinlich'”, because “Befriedigung” in this context actually meant: “Instant [sexual] gratification ( as in “masturbation”) is unrealistic. Whoopsie! The meaning was still technically there but in a very sexual way. Which was not my intention at all. But I am glad when native speakers do correct me and explain why it’s not a good idea to say a certain word or phrase in the context that I attempted to translate it in. Because had I said that to a native speaker (who isn’t my tutor/teacher or friend), I would have probably gotten a very strange look from the locals or worse: accidentally offending them. Because let’s face it nobody wants to do that.
Another thing I used a lot during the earlier stages of my language learning (back when I was 13 years old and made use of a language group on Gaia Online. I no longer use the website anymore but it has been what kept my passion for language learning alive for so long. However, it was discovered among that community that if you type in the word “God” in Bing Translator (formerly Yahoo! Altavista Babbelfish Translator) and then translated it back into English, it spat out the word: “Shoes” instead. For companies who rely on these translators, listen up. These translators will not only butcher what you want translate into your target language, but could potentially lead to some hilarious and embarrassing misunderstandings if you are not careful. When in doubt, spend the money on an actual human translator. They will be able to effectively give you what you need. Plus native speakers will further understand more about your company.
Now if you want to effectively make good use out of Google Translate, Check out Lindsay’s Blog: 10 Cool Ways to Maximise Google Translate For Language Learning
I was also recently interviewed by Jonathan Huggins of Huggins International for his podcast. Check it out!
Tell me about your language learning blunders in the comments below. How embarrassing were they? Were you able to find the correct word(s) and/or phrases that you wanted to say? Was it technically correct but the local dialect changed the meaning to something vulgar (Spanish I am looking at you!)? I would love to hear from you!