Lost in Translation

I’m low on blog fodder until the big administration handoff happens and my world (possibly) turns upside down. Until things pick back up I do have a few anecdotes that I hope are as entertaining to read for you as they were awkward for me to experience. These stories have largely taken place within the last 6 months and just go to show that even when you think you’ve integrated and “get it” that you really, really don’t. Some things are just lost on an extranjera.

What’s My Name?

Once kids find out I speak English they like to do one of three things:

  1. Start yelling “hello” and the rest of their 10 word English vocabulary (usually also including dog, cat, apple, blue, red,  goodbye, thank you and occasionally a curse word – “shit” being the most common) at me. Repeatedly. Even continuing as I walk away and until well after I am out of earshot.
  2. Start quizzing me. Pointing at anything and everything in radius as if they think they are going to stump me.
  3. Ask me what their name is in English.

The last one is the most intriguing. Of course I try to explain to them that your name is your name and that if you went to an English speaking country and wanted people to keep calling you “Jose” then they would probably do that. Plus, a lot of their names are almost identical in both languages, with just a little tweaking of pronunciation (Jonathan, Samuel, Brenda) . They don’t understand this and they don’t care. So I humor them. It’s not particularly exciting for me, but they get a kick out of it.

Anyway, you need to know all that to understand the following story. I was still trying to figure out who all the kids were that were constantly making noise outside of my window and to which homes they pertained to (this took me a VERY long time). One of the boys runs up and immediately asks, “What’s Miguel in english?!” So I try to give him my “You can be Miguel no matter where you are, you don’t have to change your name!” spiel, but this was wasted breath. I sigh and tell him, “Michael.”

He gets a funny look on his face and I wonder if I have said something wrong – perhaps it sounds like a swear word or something? He motions to the little boy standing next to him and tells me, “But my brother’s name is Michael.”

Google Translate Fail

When I go to my youth group meetings I normally bring along a poster of new vocabulary words. I like to present new vocab in themes (food, animals, articles of clothing, etc.) and sometimes my kids point out that I spelled something wrong and I feel stupid but we laugh and all learn something and move on. I recently started doing the rounds with my Weather Vocabulary poster and was starting to get the feeling that something was amiss in my translations, but no one was being forthcoming with details so I ignored it. Until I couldn’t ignore it.

My group in Campito is the group I’ve been working with the longest. It’s small but it has a really dedicated group of kids that keep the complaining to a minimum and pick up on concepts quickly. I shouldn’t pick favorites, but they are probably it. Case in point: it’s the group I got robbed going to and yet I still go. I don’t know if I would be quite as dedicated to some of the other groups…

Anyway, I put up the poster and start going through the words one by one. I hear some giggles and they get more and more pronounced until I finally hit the jackpot with “Ventoso.” The group dissolves into hysterics. I’m standing in front of my poster, utterly confused asking, “What?! What did I say?!” but all they can get out of their mouths is, “SEÑO!!!!!” before convulsing in fits of laughter. I had done this same lesson with the same poster with at least two other groups and had not had this much of a reaction.

I had been pretty sure that the word meant “windy”. That is certainly what I was taught in Spanish 1 and what Google translate had verified for me whilst making the poster. But I, along with Señora Spadaro and Google, was wrong.

I keep asking the kids to please explain what the word means to them, but they can’t seem to even think about the word without getting the giggles. Finally, one of the girls collects herself and says, “Seño, it means… hahahaahhaaha…. it means….. hahahahahhahahha…. FFFT, FFFT.” I should have known: It means gassy.

Cause of Death

“Daniela isn’t here because she went to a funeral.”

Who died?

“A baby.”

How sad. How did it die?

“Eating poop.”

I’ve been thinking about it all day and I still really don’t know what to make of that… But it does remind me of a story another volunteer told me about a little boy dying in her town. She asked what had happened and was told that the kid had eaten a golosina (small snack, normally something like chips or sweets) and it had “gone bad” and killed him. Immediately we thought this meant he choked, but no, he had been sick for weeks with intestinal troubles and the town swore the culprit was a bag of Tortrix.


My neighbors are really great and often invite me to participate whenever they go on adventures. Sometimes I understand where we’re going and why (“Let’s go to Barbarena to eat street food for dinner!” Okay! “We’re going to watch the parade, do you want to come?” Sure!) But sometimes I have no idea where we are going or why. Or, sometimes I think I know what’s going on and end up being totally wrong.

For example, a few weeks ago Chochi shows up at my door, “Elmar borrowed a car, do you want to go?”

Sure, go where?

“Where we talked about earlier.”

Uh, yeah, why not.

So I thought back to what we had been discussing earlier: the feria in a nearby aldea. Ferias are always fun. We get in the car and start driving and are headed in the right direction and I start thinking about possibly buying some papitas once we get there when Elmar starts maneuvering the car like he wants to park. We’re not exactly to the aldea yet, but Elmar would know better than me, maybe this is an ideal parking spot? We get out and I start walking up the road and realize everyone else has started walking towards a home. Oh crap.

I don’t know whose house it is. I don’t know why we’re there. But there is an altar set up and people praying. It looks like a wake so I ask Samuel, “Who died?” and he looks at me like I’m crazy and responds, “Nobody died. This is just what they do every year.”

This does not clear things up for me at all but I feel weird talking while everyone is so fervently praying so I sit near the back and watch quietly as they pray some more and then sing and then pray. Not surprisingly, this is the not first time something like this has happened to me. I often get invited to things and, lured in by promises of cake or something, find myself in the middle of something religious that I don’t understand. But eventually they finish and give me a tamale and some ponche so I can’t complain. Never did figure out what the occasion was, though.

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2 Responses to Lost in Translation

  1. Dennis says:

    That’s it. I’m not eating poop anymore.

  2. Steph says:

    Haha, love your post. I´ve also had that ¨translate my name into English¨ conversation repeatedly with kids. Kind of difficult when the kids have names like Henry, Christian, Nancy, Daisy, Michelle, Byron, Bertha, Brenda, Joselyn, Jennifer, and Elmer. The kids with Spanish names def don´t get the ¨your name is your name¨ idea. I probably didn´t either when I was a kid.

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