It started as soon as we arrived in Italy. Neither I nor my husband speak Italian, but we figured we’d soon learn. Haha, I’m such a crack-up. The hotel shuttle driver who picked us up at the airport said conversationally, “Quanti giorni?” But our ears heard something different: ” quite a journey!” Ah, he speaks English and speaks it well–we’re off to a good start!
So my husband agreed that yes, it was quite a journey and chatted away about the three planes we had to take, the 24hrs of traveling, how tired we were, etc.
But I could see the driver’s face was totally stupefied. Clearly we were not in the same conversation. It was several days later before I realized he had asked us in Italian how many days we were staying–quanti giorni. A far cry from Quite a Journey!
Google Translator has its limitations, I have learned on more than one occasion.
Last week I realized that my new teal corduroy pants needed a hem, so off we went to the sewing goods store for teal thread, needles, and straight pins.
My husband waited outside for what he was sure would be a two minute transaction. I greeted the two ladies behind the counter as I entered, but I didn’t have far to go because the wall to my right was filled with hundreds of thread colors.
I found teal immediately, but there were at least a dozen shades of teal. Uh oh. The pants that needed hemming were at home, so how to match the color?
Brain storm! I just happened to be wearing another pair of teal pants (yes, I like the color teal) that I thought were close enough in color. All I had to do was match the thread to the pants I was wearing. Easy peasy!
Not so. My long coat was hiding my pants legs. I couldn’t bend over well enough to expose the pants leg because I was as solidly bundled as Ralphie’s little brother in A Christmas Story (hey, it was chilly).
I tried pirouetting, thinking that the little breeze would flap open my coat just enough to reveal my pants leg. Nope. I gave my left leg a jiggle-jangle in a bad Elvis Presley impersonation, hoping to expose my leg. Nope again.
Only one thing left to do. I jumped up and down on my right leg giving can-can kicks with my left leg. Little flap. Little flap. Not quite. Closer. Closer. Kick higher, Leg; you can do it! I hunched over my can-can leg, holding a potential thread in my outstretched hand with the thought that I could quickly match if my teal pants leg should reveal itself.
So there I was, hopping, hunching, and high-kicking. The counter-ladies didn’t say anything but watched intently.
My husband could see my spastic ‘dance’ through the storefront window and concluded I was in dire straits.
He rushed into the store. “ARE YOU OK? ARE YOU OK?”, he shouted. “ARE YOU HAVING A STROKE?”
“Huh? No, I’m fine. I’m just trying to match my thread color.” He set me on my feet, shook his head, and walked back outside, muttering under his breath.
I decided that whatever thread I was holding was going to be good enough.
One item down, two to go, and I was on a roll. I confidently strode up to the counter to ask for needles and straight pins.
I love charades and had thought I was pretty good, so now my pantomime skills were going to come in handy.
I mimed sewing. Bingo. Got it on the first try, and she handed me a package of needles.
Now for the straight pins. I mimed sewing again. She handed me more needles–no thanks.
Ok. Time for Google Translator. The women waited patiently while I dug around in my purse for my cell phone, found my reading glasses, turned on the cell phone, opened the Translator, changed the setting to English-to-Italian, and typed in straigght pons, retyped straaiggt pins, retyped straight pins. Ta Da!
I turned the screen around so they could see the translation, but whatever it said made no sense to the ladies. They looked blankly at me, blankly at each other.
Now, after that laborious ordeal of typing, I remembered that I could use the voice function! Gosh, I’m so smart.
“I want to make a hem in my pants,” I recorded in my most articulate speech, “and need straight pins.”
I turned the screen around so they could see the translation, and they burst out laughing. I mean real guffaws, not little chuckles.
Now, what could be so funny about making a hem? I looked at the translation and saw something about putting a prosciutto in my pants. Aah, the lightbulb went off. Google heard ham, not hem.
So I re-recorded: Hem! Hem! It answered: Prosciutto! Prosciutto!
I tried again: Not ham! HEM HEM! Once again, the answer came: NON PROSCIUTTO! PROSCIUTTO! PROSCIUTTO!
Grrrr. Google Translate was irritating me, and the ladies were now wiping tears from their eyes. I put the cell phone away and went back to miming.
I needed some kind of prop to demonstrate hemming. I looked down at my pants leg and thought no, we’ve all had enough of my pants legs. I grabbed a piece of paper and folded it over and pretended to pin. The ladies offered me more thread, more needles, buttons, scissors, measuring tape, but no straight pins.
My miming self-worth now deflated, I looked around their tidy counter to find any other prop that might be helpful. And then I spied a lone straight pin, rolling towards the floor. Hurray! I held it up for all to see and was rewarded with a package of straight pins. Whew.
I thanked them profusely as I left, but I’m not sure they said, “Please come again!” Maybe I just didn’t hear them.
A few months ago, my husband hurt his knee somehow, so he was limping and generally in pain. I had my mother’s old cane with me, but it was too short for him. So, not knowing what kind of store would carry canes, I went to our local pharmacy that is always helpful.
I turned on Google Translator and typed in ‘cane’. I held up my phone for the clerks to see the translation ‘canna’, and they stifled smiles, poked each other, and asked with raised eyebrows if I wanted to buy cannabis!
No, no. Stupid Google Translator. I put the phone away.
I mimed holding a cane, limping, and made noises like I was in pain. They offered me analgesics for what they interpreted as my hurting back. No, no. I pointed to my knee. They offered me rubbing compounds for aching joints.
My miming skills have taken a real beating here. I kept pointing to my imaginary stick/cane, and finally, hurray, they came up with ‘bastione’ or something like that. They understood. But no, they did not have a cane. With all this elapsed time, my husband’s knee had repaired itself.
Oh, it’s not just Italian where we have trouble communicating. I can have problems in English, too, where I don’t understand what someone is trying to convey.
But British English is a different story entirely. A real foreign language to me. It’s not the different words for the same item that trip me up (American English says truck; English English says lorry). That’s not a big deal. I have the hardest time understanding the different pronunciation of the same word!
My daughter and I were in London some years ago, and we were taking one of those doubledecker tours. The driver announced something that sounded like it was important, but I didn’t have a clue what he said. I heard “…something something…change bus…Ma Blotch…something something.” Ma Blotch? Sounded awfully homey and Old Wild West to me which made no sense on a London tour bus.
I poked my daughter who is nearly fluent in English-English. “Mom, I keep telling you that you gotta watch more British television,” she sighed, tired from the constant work of being my English translator in London. She translated that at Ma Blotch, we had to change buses. I was not familiar with this historical figure, but I did understand the concept of changing buses.
A few minutes later, the driver announced we had arrived at Ma Blotch, and all the passengers got off and waited for our substitute bus. I didn’t see anything that looked like it could be a statue of the famous Ma Blotch. I leaned against a street sign, pondering this mystery, when I looked up and saw that we were at Marble Arch. Aaah, Marble Arch = Ma Blotch! Of course.
And a few days later, we were enjoying breakfast at our London hotel, and the elderly man breakfasting next to us, struck up a conversation. “Have you been back to Paris?” he asked.
My daughter and I looked at each other, astonished. How did this stranger know that indeed, we had been back to Paris and how could he have known that we’d been to Paris in the first place? We said yes, we have been back to Paris, thank you very much.
And then he asked, ‘Did you see the Queen?”
Wait a second. Now I’m lost in this conversation. Queen in Paris? What queen? How could this conversation have taken a wrong turn in just a few sentences?
So, we tentatively said um, no, we did not see the Queen. He chatted on, talking about a flag being up or down or something if the Queen was in or out or something or other.
And then it hit us. He hadn’t asked, ‘have you been back to Paris’. He had asked, ‘have you been to Buckingham Palace’. YES! We were back in the same conversation even though our new friend hadn’t realized we had left it!
To me, all these language mix-ups create funny stories to relate later. Maybe it’s more frustrating than funny while you’re trying unsuccessfully to communicate. But you’re creating memories that later make you smile.