The Right Word

The great American writer, Mark Twain, once famously explained that  “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  This is proven every day by those who travel to countries where a language other than their own is spoken.  One evening when I was an exchange student in Bogota, Colombia, I prompted quizzical looks all around the dinner table when I declared with disgust in Spanish that the movie theater I had visited that afternoon was infested with “inches”.  Not quite.  In Spanish, “pulgadas” is translated as “inches”.  As I scratched the itchy bumps on my arm, I should have been thinking of the the word “pulgas” which means “fleas”.

Sometimes, poor translation has more serious implications.  Many remember Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s effort to get off on the right foot with her counterpart, the Russian foreign minister.  At their first meeting, she presented him with a large red “reset” button, indicating the willingness of the Obama administration to start a new era of international cooperation after a period of strained relations.  Except–oops–the translation was incorrect.  In Russian, the button did not say “reset”,  It said “overload” or “overcharge”.   Secretary Clinton’s face was as red as the button and one imagines that some translator’s head rolled.

The same “lost in translation” moments can occur even when we think we are fluent in the language we are speaking. The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, is credited with pointing out that, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” As an American, I thought attending school in England when my father was an exchange teacher would not produce any language embarrassments.  I correctly thought that my accent might engender a few bemused comments, but I did not expect to amuse people by asking where I could find a drug store.  Apparently, I should have been looking for the “chemists”.  In school, I learned that sentences do not end with periods, but rather with full stops.  I’m afraid I just stood there looking confused when my English friend’s father asked me to put my suitcase in the boot, meaning the trunk of the car.  It sounded strange at first to be cautioned to “mind the gap” when getting off a train, instead of being urged to “watch your step”.  But, before long, I just accepted that my friend’s mother was admitted “to hospital” instead of “to the hospital”.

Proofreading my school work was a laborious task as I had to be on the look out not only for the normal mistakes, but also for words that needed to be spelled differently because this was England.  My corrections included centre for center.  Color had to be colour and we studied the British theatre–not the theater. While playfully trying to imitate an English accent with my classmates at recess, from the shocked faces, I learned that “bloody”, was considered blasphemous and a really bad word.

Spanish speakers from different home countries experience the same phenomenon.  When you go to Puerto Rico, it is okay to tell people you plan to “coger el bus” (catch a bus), but say the same thing in Argentina and expect some gasps, and for your choice of words to be corrected, since you just announced that you plan to F*** the bus!


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