Lost in Translation: 10 Foreign Language Fails

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?