Illustration by Sarah McLellan
By Sixiang Chen
For international students here, and for American students who study abroad, mastering a second language can be fraught with confusing translations. And newcomers often make jokes by mistake.
Six years ago, I came to America to study at Grand River Academy in Cleveland, Ohio. I had a solid foundation of basic English but one day I bumped into a senior student, and he asked, “What’s up?” It was the first time I heard the common expression and I had no idea what it meant. Awkwardly, I looked up into the sky and questioned him, “Sky?”
The senior student laughed at me for half a semester and my story was spread all over the high school. But, every expert has made mistakes before becoming an expert. I’m not the only one to suffer the consequences of a joke lost in translation. “The first time I ordered food at Subway, I didn’t know how to order food by myself,” said Traci Yang ’19 from Shanghai, China. “When the waitress asked me what I would like, I bit
the bullet and said ‘this, this, this, that, yes, this, no, no, that, ok, thanks.’
“It was hard to order food without some vocabulary, and I saw the waitress was tittering,” Yang said.
Another student, who asked not to be identified, said, “Last year, St. Michael’s College introduced a new policy: smoke-free campus. Once I asked my friend, an American student [who was a smoker], if he quit smoking while I smoked a cigarette under the sign. He answered, ‘Smoke-free campus.’ I nodded my head and said, ‘Ya, it’s free to smoke.’
He was shocked when his friend explained that the “smoke-free“ meant that smoking was prohibited, not “free.” Henceforth, He stopped smoking on campus, “Every time I see ‘XXXX-free,’ I would think of my unmentionable experience.”
It also happens to American students who study abroad. For example, when you go to Austria or Germany, you must be careful about how to refer to your friend. “‘Mein Freund,’ or ‘My friend’ is very different from ‘Freund von mir,’ or ‘friend of me,’” said Alec Medine ’18, who studied abroad in Austria last spring. “If you refer to them as ‘my friend,’ the locals assume they are your boyfriend or girlfriend. Something very handy to know when you are ordering something such as a drink for a friend at a bar, or it can get
Jennifer Toner ’17 studied abroad in Switzerland and lived with a family who spoke French. “When I was talking about my cousin who lives in Detroit, I kept saying the word ‘Detroit’ to my host mom, but she had no idea where I was talking about.
“Then I started explaining more that it was in Michigan, that they made cars there, and she finally exclaimed, ‘Oh! Detroit!’ However, it was pronounced ‘de-twah,’ which is the proper way to pronounce it in French. It was pretty funny and we kept joking about it for the remainder of my time there,” said Toner.
“People who studied abroad are more or less likely to make some jokes [in translation], and some of the jokes will make them embarrassing, and some of the jokes make others laugh,” Yang said. “However, the existence of these jokes is an indispensable and irreproducible part of our lives. They help us to grow up, making us better integrate into different cultures from the jokes.”