Lost in Translation: 10 Foreign Language Fails

by Anisha Hopkinson on July 13, 2015

This lady. Yeah. I think we've all been there.

This lady. Yeah. I think we’ve all been there.

I’m Anisha, an American new (again) to living overseas. A year into life in Indonesia and the opportunities for making a fool of myself are endless. They are also endlessly hilarious if I let them be.

One of my favourite things to do is swap stories of culture and language blunders with fellow cross-cultural workers. Laughter is such good medicine and sometimes all it takes to lighten the load is a good laugh at ourselves. So I asked friends to share their funniest, most embarrassing moments with us and also included one of my own. Go ahead, laugh! I sure did.

Here goes…

In a small village in the mountains of Guatemala my American friend finally got up the courage to try to evangelise in Spanish. She was so pleased with herself when she said, “Sabes que Jesus murio en la Cruz para llevar tus pescado?” The group burst out laughing and when she asked her translator why, she was told, “You asked them if they knew Jesus died on the cross to take away their fish!” Turns out the word for fish ‘pescado’ is awfully close to the word for sin ‘pecado.’ A little boy in the group wanted to know why Jesus wanted to take away his fish.

When a Dutch friend served in Malawi, she tripped and fell into a ditch. Still getting to grips with English, when her male American colleague later asked if she was ok she responded, “Oh yes, really I’m fine. I just got a run in my pantie.” Only when she started to lift her long skirt to show him and saw his eyes wide with shock that she realised her mistake. She’d used the Dutch word ‘pantie’ instead of the full English word, “Oh! My pantie HOSE! My tights! So sorry! A run in my pantie HOSE!”

While learning the language in Tanzania my British friend kept confusing the local greeting word with the word for banana. Since Tanzanian greetings are long and require many repetitions of the greeting she soon became known as the Banana Lady.

My American friend serving in Cambodia wanted to compliment her house helper for a delicious lunch. Instead, all she managed to say was, “It was made of meat.”

Early in their time in Cambodia, the husband of said American friend went to the post office to pick up a package. The post office ladies, who are very chatty, asked what he does for a living. Trying to say that right now he was a student, he used the wrong vowel and instead it came out as, “Right now, I’m a horse.”

I live on the island of New Guinea where a 5th of the world’s languages are found. On our side of the island the trade language is Indonesian, but always wanting to try out new words in the tribal languages I was thrilled to learn the local greeting for women in my area. Seeing my friend, I smiled big and said, “Lauk!” She looked confused and the rest of our friends burst out laughing. I’d not given a breath between the ‘la’ and the ‘uk,’ and placed the emphasis on the wrong part of the word. I’d called my friend a vegetable.

My American team leader told me a hair salon story about an expat lady here in Indonesia who confused the word ‘rumput’ meaning grass with ‘rambut’ for hair and asked the stylist to just trim a little off her grass.

Along the same lines, a Dutch friend once told her Indonesian friend she’d eaten a delicious head ‘kepala’ at the beach instead of a delicious coconut ‘kalapa.’

Another Dutch friend told me a rather infamous language school story that frequently makes the rounds in our expat community. It goes like this… Smooshed in a taxi with the oppressive Indonesian heat beating down, an American man tells the passenger next to him that he’s hot and asks to open the window, at least that’s what he meant to say. Only our unfortunate language school student used the word ‘celana’ meaning pants instead of ‘gendela’ for window, resulting in him asking his fellow passenger, “I’m hot. Please open trousers.”

Our agency’s Swiss Director spent seven years in Albania. His wife, who is Albanian, says he learned the language pretty well. Albanian is a difficult language with 36 letter sounds. For example, the two different L’s. LL has a stronger sound than just L and changes word meanings. So the word ‘Djal’ means boy/son, but ‘Djall’ means devil. His wife laughs as she recalls how often he would remark to parents, “What a nice little devil you’ve got there!”


Oh the stories we could tell! Certainly living and working cross-culturally has it’s challenges, but there is also a good dose of hilarity, don’t you think? Now it’s your turn. What are your funniest, most embarrassing cross-cultural moments?

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About Anisha Hopkinson

Anisha was born to Chilean and Texan parents, first tasted missions in Mexico, fell in love with an Englishman in Africa, and now lives in Indonesia. She journals about cross-cultural life, helping people, and loving Jesus on www.namasayamommy.blogspot.com
  • Chad Huber

    During my first few months in Mexico, someone asked if I wanted to eat. I responded with “Si, por favor yo tengo hombre” Which meant, “Yes please, I have a man.” The word for hungry is hambre. What a difference a vowel makes!

    • Anisha Hopkinson

      Ha! I’ve said the same thing!

  • Maybe not very appropriate here, but in LPDR the language is tonal. If you say “khoy” with a low falling tone, it means I/me/my/mine. But if you say it with a low rising tone? It means penis. I really enjoy watching newcomers walk around introducing their penis’ names to everyone. I’m sure I NEVER did that in my first months here. 😉

    Honorable mention: My husband walked across the street one day to buy a couple of eggs from our neighbor lady, but instead offered to sell his testicles to her. The words for buy and sell are easy to get mixed up, but who new the slang for testicles was ‘two eggs?’ The things they don’t teach you in language school…

    • Anisha Hopkinson

      Oh my gosh I’M DYING!!!! 😀

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Soooooo funny Lauren!

    • Liz Read

      Oh that’s hilarious! Eggs can be slang for the same in Romania, where I am, too! Also.. in Romanian there’s one sound that doesn’t have any equivalent in English… and that sound is what makes the difference between asking for a Lemon and… a certain sex act. O.o Got that one wrong so many times..

    • Stephanie

      Oh goodness! My roommate in China was teaching kindergarten and named their class fish after her favorite Star Wars character, Qui-Gon Jinn. Her Chinese Teaching Assistant FLIPPED OUT because with the correct tones, Kuai Gan (very similar) means orgasm. There you have it – a fish named orgasm!

      And my Norwegian friend in Thailand mixes up two initial sounds in Karen that makes a marked difference in a phrase – whether she’s saying “excellent, really really great!” or “big penis.” And once she found out about her mistake, she’s only gotten it more mixed up in her head and can’t remember which is which!

      Lastly, another friend, an American in China, accidentally mispronounced one of the syllables of strawberry (in Chinese). Her language teacher was shocked. When the teacher recovered, she told my friend “you just said, I think in English, it is _____.” and proceeded to nonchalantly drop the F-bomb, which of course floored my friend.

      Oh one more, lest I leave myself out. I managed to mispronounce a surname, quite loudly, while in line to board at the Incheon Airport. In Korean, I’d actually said “BOOBS!”

  • em

    I once went to the market and ordered a chicken. I tried to ask them to leave the skin (chamra) on. Instead I asked them to leave the choshma (eyeglasses on). I didn’t even realize it until I was on the way home.

    A friend of mine tried to tell a guest, that really he couldn’t eat any more, because his stomach was full (bhora geche). Instead he told them that he couldn’t eat any more because his stomach died (mora geche).

    • Anisha Hopkinson

      Ha! I might try that excuse sometime, sorry can’t eat it. My stomach died.

  • Anna Wegner

    Fortunately, people here (Republic of Congo) are forgiving of our mistakes, so they end up mostly being funny not embarrassing. Humor doesn’t always translate the way you think it would, which is how I ended up giving a 200 pound woman a ride in my bike cart built for toddlers. I was starting on grass, had a ramp to go up to get off the compound to the road, and an audience. I was praying for super human strength! We made it the 1.5 miles to the market to the entertainment of all we passed on the way, and I’ve never had to repeat that exercise.
    This past Sunday, my attention was wondering during church, and I tuned back in to realize that the preacher was asking people to stand up, but not soon enough to catch why. Were we standing if we love Jesus, and I was sitting down? Were we volunteering for something? What was going on? I kept an eye on 2 of the women who are pillars of the church. They stayed sitting, so did I. I *think* it was just an opportunity to stand up if you had a burden you wanted the preacher to pray about.
    It works the other way sometimes, too. Sometimes people assume that no one white would know the local trade language (Lingala). I’ve been at the market several times, and there will be discussion in Lingala about the “white person” price. It’s always fun to point out that I do understand, and am only going to pay the lower price.

    • Anisha Hopkinson

      Oh my I have one of those bike trailers and kudos to you for being able to pull an adult! I would have passed out. Ha! 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing! I love missionary humor – sometimes you just need to laugh! I put together a short collection of humorous missionary stories. I’d like to expand it someday. If you want to help, please let me know! http://www.amazon.com/So-You-Want-Be-Missionary-ebook/dp/B00D1WA5TA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1396484712&sr=8-1&keywords=brian+fulmer

    • Anisha Hopkinson

      I love missionary humour too! Thanks for the book link 🙂

  • Laura Armstrong

    We lived in Indonesia for many, many years but early on in our language study phase, maybe 2 to 3 months in, my husband was asked to pray in Indonesian to close the sermon. In true Indonesian style, he got up and wanted to say, like they always do, “Mari kita berdoa bersama-sama” (Let us pray together), but instead he said, “Mari kita berdosa bersama-sama” (Let us sin together). Needless to say the congregation burst out laughing…so much for ending on a serious note!

    • Anisha Hopkinson

      Oh my goodness that’s hilarious! Ha! And I totally relate! Early on in learning language I once prayed to ‘tahun’ (year) instead of ‘Tuhan’ (Lord).

  • rachel paraguay

    Just love love love this! But it should come with a warning, do not drink whilst reading this piece or you’ll end up baptising your computer 😉

  • I was translating for a short-term team very early on in South America, and I always had trouble mixing up pronouns. I realized after about the sixth church visit that at every church up to that point, when I had meant to greet them with, “We are so honored to be in your presence,” I’d actually said, “You are so honored to be in our presence.” I wanted to crawl in a hole when I realized that it was impossible to go back to those places and fix my big blunder.

  • Jason Hopkins

    Works in sign language, too. It happened to me when I first stated working in Kenya. After having a good meal I told my host “I’m full”. The same sign is used in Kenya, but it means “I’m dead.” Where I worked the deaf Kenyans know that and just lie in wait for the unwary! Gotta get your kicks where you can, right??

  • Tally

    When our country was faced with a threat of Ebola our team got together a drama team to teach prevention. Most of the team did not speak the local language fluently. One of our sketches was about how to deal with a cadaver. I think we all managed to get it right in front of an audience, but many a practice session were interrupted by laughter as someone said Don’t lamaga (mix) the presumably dead body rather than Don’t maga la (touch)

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