Lost in Translation

Recently I was at a family lunch in the sierra: friends of mine, an Italian/Spanish couple, were celebrating birthdays, at his parents’ house in the country, and her parents were over visiting from Northern Italy. Consequently the lunch was delicious and convivial- we were in the hands of a small but efficient army of mediterranean matrons, so how could it be any different? Spanish hospitality and Italian food; a long, long wooden rustic table heaving with wine, good food and laughter, the sort of afternoon you don’t forget easily.  After eating, everyone headed outside for afternoon sunshine and beer, while the parents moved in to clear the table. I went to thank the Italian mother for her citrus risotto and home-made tiramisu, and we chatted in my pidgin Italian. A little later, in the garden, my Italian friend came over to comment,

‘My Mum said it was nice talking to you. She said you’re a bella donna.’ She then looked quite confused when I laughed and said,

‘I’m going to take that as compliment. I assume she doesn’t mean I’m poisonous!’

But of course, how is an Italian, talking to a Brit, in Spanish, going to know that a perfectly innocuous compliment, meaning ‘beautiful woman’, for us means Deadly Nightshade, the poison used by the ancient Romans, and before that, to make poison-tipped arrows, and even ingested by women in the weird cosmetic practice of mild self-poisoning, which dilates the pupils, hence the name?  This is what happens when one language steals from another, a habit the all-consuming dragon that is the English language has been doing for centuries. One should never assume that the meaning of the terms we use is clear, or that you are always using them correctly yourself. There’s even a name in language learning for those foreign words you think you know because they are similar to words in your own language, but in fact they are waiting with tiny daggers to stab you in the back. They are called false friends.

Take ‘je suis pleine’, in French, which literally translates as ‘I’m full’; to someone learning French this might seem like a perfectly appropriate comment for the dinner table, but it is likely to raise a few eyebrows, as it is, in fact, a declaration that you are pregnant. Or ‘sensible’ which in Spanish means ‘sensitive’, and the corresponding word is, in fact, ‘sensato’. There are many, many examples- and that’s without delving into the differences and confusions in the same language: look at American and British usage of words like ‘bum, fag and fanny.’ So, language is not always your friend, not always to be trusted; it likes to have a little laugh at our expense sometimes.

All this prompted me to tell my Italian friend the following story, which she found highly amusing:

On my first ever visit to Italy I was working in the Dolomites. It’s a long story, but I got invited out for the night by a fantastically handsome young man some years my junior. (I was in my early thirties, he was probably in his mid twenties). Strangely, we ended up at a rave party in a village in the mountains. As we made our way through the impeccably-dressed crowds of ravers he bumped into a friend of his. Italians are always very polite, and his friend asked to be introduced to me, quipping,

‘Cuesta e tua sorella?’ which I correctly understood to mean,

‘So, who’s this then, your sister?’

My date replied smoothly,

‘No, e mia nonna.’ Which I incorrectly took to mean, ‘No, she’s my girl.’ It was a fair assumption- ‘nena’ in Spanish means ‘babe’. Consequently I smirked and batted my eyelashes at the compliment, while they laughed heartily. It wasn’t until quite a long time later, when I actually started learning Italian, that I discovered that ‘nonna’ does not mean ‘babe’ at all, it means ‘granny.’


One Response to “Lost in Translation”

  1. christine Says:

    Great peice of travel writing.Everyone loves those language slip ups don’t they.So embarassing,but so so funny!

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