Missing It By This Much: Adventures in Translation

Learning a new language can be difficult, at least for adults. First there’s a whole new set of vocabulary words, then the work of learning to conjugate verbs correctly, and grammar rules to follow. After years in Honduras and Spain, plus my recent stint in Spanish classes, I’ve gotten fairly decent at Spanish, though I know I still make obvious errors.

One of my biggest missteps in French used to come when I wanted to tell someone that I missed them. In French, the verb for missing someone has a preposition attached, so that what you are really saying is, “You are being missed by me.” If you translate it word for word from English, you end up telling people, “Hey, you miss me!” In cases when I feel quite close to a person, I have more than once told them, “You miss me a lot!”

Sigh. This kind of error lurks in my mind as I speak Spanish, too. Even though the construction isn’t the same, I fear making the same error, so I kind of avoid telling people I miss them if they don’t speak English.

I also avoid telling people what I would like to do, or what I would have done. I pretty much just tell them the facts of what I did, what I’m doing, or what I will do. Issues of doubt or possibility don’t occur much in my life. At least, not in Spanish. In Spanish, I am certain all the time, which takes longer, frankly. “I would like to, but I don’t have my car yet,” becomes, “I want to do that. I like doing that. I will not do that today. I want my car. I will do that in the future.” You see? Certain, but not succinct, and not completely fluent.

Sometimes it’s nice, then, to see others make some similar mistakes in English. It takes the pressure off when I’m not always having to laugh at myself, but can gently chuckle along with those in the same situation.

At my birthday dinner with the family this week, I scanned the menu and quickly decided on garlic shrimp. Honey took a little more time checking things out, and asked me, smiling, “What is muffled shrimp?” We thought it meant “battered and fried,” but we weren’t sure. I had decided on the (presumably louder) garlic shrimp and stuck with it. This meant passing up the all-you-can-eat choice as well, which they billed as “All the meat you wish can be eaten.”

If you want your shrimp quiet, order the muffled shrimp.

If you want your shrimp quiet, order the muffled shrimp.

The last near-miss involves the fact that I frequently talk to the ceiling at my house. Honey and the kids are getting used to me breaking into Spanish at random times, speaking loudly about how I hope things will happen for us in the near future. I’m not praying; I’m speaking to the Cuban government officials who, from all accounts, listen to us in our home.

Other American families living here have told us of “coincidences” like running out of gas to cook with, talking to each other about it, and a serviceman from the gas company showing up within the hour. Or cooking a Thanksgiving meal, realizing they didn’t have enough onions, and a passing produce vendor ringing the bell a few minutes later, offering onions that day, surprise, surprise.

You may remember, if you’ve been here before, that in hopes of a “coincidence,” I requested from the ceiling a speedy delivery of our household goods. My birthday was earlier this week, and I had asked for our belongings by then. Well, the ceiling did not comply with my request. However, yesterday we got our first shipment, 10 days after it arrived in country! This feels like a Guinness world record, considering the stories I’ve heard from other Americans so far.

I thanked the ceiling yesterday. “You were so close to my birthday,” I said. “You just missed it by this much. That was very kind.”

I’m not sure I should get used to talking to people who are listening in to us. When you peel back the layers of it, it’s unnerving to know that everything we say is open to scrutiny. However, I consider it my own form of diplomacy to speak directly to those whose microphones are hidden here. If they aren’t embarrassed to be listening in on us, well, I’m not embarrassed to act like I know it, and I’m certainly not embarrassed for them to hear how we manage family life.

Even if I end up inadvertently telling them that they really miss me. A lot.


3 thoughts on “Missing It By This Much: Adventures in Translation

  1. Jenn, it sounds like you are deathly afraid of the Spanish subjunctive…hehe, me too! I KNOW for a fact that your Spanish is better than mine, because you study. Love reading about your life in Cuba! Hope you had a great bday mi amiga.

    • Kari, I announced in Spanish class that the subjunctive is dead to me. ;) Why, for crying out loud, do they wait until your brain has the simple tenses cemented in place before they introduce the subjunctive?

  2. Jenn,
    I have enough trouble with English to try another language. :) I am going to try to speak to my ceiling this evening… “I’d love to have a large pork sausage pan pizza from Pizza Hut … light on the pork”. When you tell those people that they miss you a lot you should just be using your Jedi Knight voice and they will slowly nod their head yes. :)

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