Lost in Translation: Overcoming the Language Barriers

A few years after we moved to the Bay Area my sweet Japanese friend, Juri, said she had a question to ask me. She wanted to know why I sign my emails off with three crosses. As in ‘xxx’. She had even looked up the word in a dictionary. I explained they were kisses and she let out a big satisfactory sigh. She liked the idea that a letter of the alphabet can express a kiss.  We agreed that with hundreds of languages spoken in the Bay Area, that many things are lost in translation, what would help is a cultural dictionary. Can you imagine?

‘Gordon Bennett’ (British exclamation): Used to describe great surprise or anger. No, we have no idea who he is; he is not our friend, we just say his name randomly when something shocks us.

‘Bloody’ (British attributive): A swear word. It doesn’t mean that something is soaked in blood. When I call them my ‘bloody kids’ there is no need to look shocked.

Lost in Translation- American and British English are not the same

When we first arrived in the Bay Area from the UK we knew the lack of language barrier would make life easier but were still surprised by the subtle differences that became lost in translation.

Lost in translation-you might need a cultural dictionary

There are more differences in American and British English than you might think

Looking for second-hand furniture was puzzling until we searched for ‘consignment’. It was after weeks of looking for a single bed that we realized we needed a ‘twin’ (even though we only wanted one).  A ‘condo’ is not an apartment; a bedroom is only legally a bedroom if it has a built-in closet, a quilt is a ‘comforter’, string is called ‘twine’ and wool is ‘yarn’.

My daughter’s teacher was bemused when she asked in class about her missing jumper and my husband got some alarmed looks from colleagues when he talked about playing hooker on his rugby team. ‘Spirit Day’ is a day when children dress to show their supportive school spirit. A ‘Room Parent’ is the person who liaises between the teacher and parents in your classroom. By the way,  ‘Make Up Photo Day’ is a retake day for school photos, not a chance to apply lipstick to your child.  And then there was the time I told a friend’s son to put his rubbish away, and he cried because I’d used a naughty word.

Searching for the right words

After five years here I’m still surprised when my burger arrives with crisps on the side, I have no idea what the correct word for ‘blu tack’ is and my butcher continues to use a British accent to reply, “you mean ground beef” whenever I ask him for mince meat.

You know you’re going to be lost in translation when you can’t find the word in an online search or when shopping on Amazon.com. Then there’s that moment you are talking to someone and the glazed look indicates you’ve said something that hasn’t translated. (Of course, this works both ways. I’ve often mistakenly used the wrong word in a sentence, and to rescue my pride nodded confidently to suggest that that’s just the way we say it in the UK!)

Lost in translation-beware biscuits

You might get some funny looks in the US if you ask for a biscuit to go with your tea

I honestly thought my friend Liz was talking about her fourth child when she referred to her 2009 ‘addition’, but she meant an extension on her house. She thought an extension meant lengthening your hair. ‘The man from the insurance company asked me if I’d hurt my head when I informed him I had driven into the back of a lorry and damaged my bonnet. A tank top is a cute sleeveless top, not the geeky knitted item from the UK. Likewise, a vest means something totally different here, and don’t look alarmed when someone compliments you on your cute pants. It took four years before I realized that coffee cake doesn’t have any caffeine in it. Being ‘pissed’ does not mean you are drunk, you don’t wash your face with a flannel, and a biscuit is a scone-like item served with gravy. Do not dunk it in your tea.

Embrace the confusion

Only in America is the date format written as month, date, year instead of date, month, year. Which is why I turned up for my dentist appointment on 2nd November instead of 11th February. And telling someone that they are quite nice means very nice, not a little nice!

Lost in translation-even food is different

Did you know there’s no coffee in an American coffee cake?

‘Spare the Air’ days run through November to February when it becomes illegal to burn fires when pollution forecasts are high.  I should also explain that ‘run through’ means ‘goes from’. My friend Annette who moved here from Germany realized (after explaining the details of her day with total strangers) that being asked how she was doing was a type of greeting rather than an actual question. And then there was the time my Australian friend announced that she had her thongs on and was ready to go!

If you’re thinking of sharing some of these analogies with people who have just moved here, I’d encourage you not to. In the beautiful cultural melting pot of the Bay Area you can travel far further when you are lost in translation. In those embarrassing, confused moments of communicational discord I have roared laughing with strangers. To not understand something is to reveal your vulnerability, which is often the best bridge to build connections with others. A cultural dictionary would be a shame! Old ways don’t open new doors and often it starts with something as simple as three kisses.

What are your Lost in Translation stories?



About Louise Griffin

Originally from the UK Louise became a Bay Area native five years ago when a corporate move gave her the chance to see if she might enjoy a different kind of life. The sun, friendships, food, landscape and lifestyle make it a no brainer but she still misses the UK and loves contrasting the differences between the two countries because it gives her a yardstick to reflect on how she might be changing through this experience. Her new life is based on the essence of community – sharing, supporting and learning. As a professional fundraiser she is always keen to sniff out community need and use her skills to make a difference. She lives in San Mateo with her husband and two young children.

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