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Lost in Translation

I had an interesting discussion with my au pairs yesterday at our monthly meeting.  The topic of languages and slang came up and how some seemingly innocent words in one language can mean something completely different (and, in some cases, inappropriate) in another – one of the memorable examples came from my Brazilian friends and their reaction at seeing pinto beans in the grocery store; apparently pinto is not a very nice word in Brazilian Portuguese!  Please note that the topic of this post is not meant to offend anyone’s sensibilities – just to show how things get be easily misinterpreted!

I can also pull from days of teaching German.  As much as I love the German language, there are some words which can cause the average teenage boy fits of laughter.  One example came up when teaching colors and the word light, as in light blue, came up.  The German word is hell.  While we’re on the subject of colors, the color red is rot (pronounced with a long o sound).  That would be a word that was purposely mispronounced for humor.  Then, there was the word Fahrt, which actually means a trip or journey.  Finally, one I tried to avoid use of for what will become obvious reasons – the word for fat as in overweight is dick.  Enough said (or typed).

There are other German words that just cause difficulty because they are what we referred to as falsche Freunde or false friends.  They look like a recognizable word in English, but mean something completely different and lots of languages have them; most of the ones I know just happen to be German. 🙂  A couple of examples that caused my own students problems were fast (almost), bald (soon) and the verb war (was).  Another interesting one to point out is das Gift, which is poison.  That can make special occasions fun 😉

I also remember a few words from my three semesters of Russian.  As someone with a younger brother, I was always secretly amused that the Russian word for brother is брат or brat.  In Ireland, you might see the word Fir on the door to the men’s toilets; the color green in Irish is glas.

This doesn’t just occur in foreign languages either.  I have friends from Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand and even some of the words in American English differ from some of the words they use!  A quick and non-offensive example would be football. Here in America, we call that soccer.  Another example refers to part of a car.  Here in the US, we may store things in the trunk, but in British English, you would store things in the boot of the car.

I came across some other interesting examples from other languages here.

I know that there are tons of other examples and I’d like for you to share in the comments.  Just try to keep it from getting TOO graphic 😉

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