Lost in Translation: Mission Stories

December 3, 2013

We recently had the missionaries over for dinner, one of whom is a convert from Brazil.  He shared a funny language mix-up he had.  In Portuguese as many other languages, nouns have a gender assignation, which is why Italians say things like:  “The boat, she is sinking!” before they grab a taxi and flee the site of their navigation errors.  He wanted to say something about angels, but he wasn’t sure what pronouns were associated with angels.  He didn’t want to sound silly, so he asked (just as there was a lull in the conversation), “Do angels have sex?”

Language mistakes can be funny, and missionaries learning new languages often have plenty of stories like this to share.

Living in Asia we found that non-native speakers with heavy accents could be hard to understand at times, even when their word choice was perfect.  In Cambodia we hired a Mormon tour guide who was very proud of his country’s “beautiful bitches.”  He kept talking about how lovely they were, appealing to many tourists, and unexpected for a country mostly known for history.  It took us a few tries before we finally decided we was talking about beaches.

As a missionary, my senior companion and I were doing street contacts when I noticed she was using “por” and “para” backwards.  In Spanish, por means “by” and “para” means “for.”  She intended to tell people that the Book of Mormon was written for us, for our benefit, but instead she was telling people that it was written by us.  On the upside, we quickly emptied our backpacks of all our heavy books, and even got to sign a few copies for people.  We were basically rock stars that day.

Another issue for non-native Spanish speakers is knowing how to say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.”  There are a few options:  “Lo siento” (meaning “I feel it”), “perdon” (meaning “I beg your pardon”), or “con permiso” (literally meaning, “with your permission”).  At a dinner with a member, my companion was embarrassed when she burped.  She covered her mouth and sweetly said, “Con permiso!” which made me laugh because it sounded like she was asking permission to do it again.

Of course the most common Spanish mistake missionaries make is pretty bad.  The word for “with” is “con,” as in chili con carne (chili with meat).  To say “with you” the speaker adds “tigo” to the end to make the word “contigo” (ti = you).  For “with me” it’s the same logic, but with “migo” or “conmigo” (mi = me).  However, the word for “I” is “yo,” and sometimes missionaries mix up the “migo” with “yo” since both words are so similar in meaning.  The new compound word does not mean “with me” but refers to female genitalia.  It’s actually a fairly common swear word in Spain.  I think every Spanish speaking missionary has made this mistake at least once, often while pointing at him or herself, mimicking the exaggerate hand gestures common in Spanish speaking countries.

One story people liked to share, which could be apocryphal, is a story about a missionary trying to teach a family about faith using an object lesson.  The missionary has a comb in his pocket that is hidden.  He explains faith by saying, “I have a comb in my pocket.  Do you believe I do?” and if they say yes, then he takes the comb out and shows it to them to illustrate that they now have a perfect knowledge.  Unfortunately, the word for “comb” in Spanish is “peine” which is incredibly similar to the word “pene” (penis).  Needless to say, the family in the story strongly preferred that he leave it in his pocket.   They were content to live on faith.

What language mix-ups have you experienced?

Discuss

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16 Responses to Lost in Translation: Mission Stories

  1. Andrew on December 3, 2013 at 8:35 AM

    The Armenian language has hard and soft consonant sounds and is also extremely particular with proper vowel pronunciation. This often leads to hilarious mistakes by newbies who have yet to develop an ear for it. One of the most common mix-ups are between the verbs for “to sleep” (knel), “to have” (kunel), and “to f–k” (kunel). The similarity between the last two is between hard and soft sounds inexpressible in written English. Church members are so used to these mistakes by new missionaries that they rarely bat an eye when someone drops an F-bomb in church. Other people, however, have more amusing reactions.

    One other mistake is when there is vowel confusion between the word for refrigerator (sarnaran) and the word for brothel (sernaran). For the etymology geeks out there, the literal translation of the two words is “place of cold” and “place of sex”, respectively. (Armenian is a very old language.)

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  2. Gary Bergera on December 3, 2013 at 8:48 AM

    In France, in the mid-1970s, the funniest of these kinds of mistakes was hearing a missionary confuse third- and first-person pronouns, and instead of saying that “God so loved us that he gave a body like his,” said, “God so loved us that he gave us a body like mine.”

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  3. hawkgrrrl on December 3, 2013 at 9:15 AM

    Gary Bergera’s story reminded me of a particularly disastrous talk given by one of the elders. He was telling a story as if from the first person about his “brother” who died for him, but it was one of those stories that modernized Jesus, and frankly it was just confusing to the members. They were listening raptly, assuming it was all a real story about his actual brother, and when he said his brother was killed, nailed to a cross, the entire congregation crossed themselves and there were audible gasps. I overheard one of the women say (in Spanish): “They crucified his brother, just like Jesus. Oh, my God! What monsters!”

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  4. The Other Clark on December 3, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    I thought the classic apocrophal Mexican mission language mix-up occurred when the branch president asked the new sister missionary to bear her testimony, which required significant prodding.

    Unsure of her language skills, and quite flustered she wanted to say, “I’m quite embarrassed right now, and it’s his fault” Unfortunately she used the false cognate “embarazada” which means “pregnant.”

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  5. whizzbang on December 3, 2013 at 5:17 PM

    I’ve heard that the spanish word for “spirit” and “virgin” are similar and so some new elder speaking Spanish told the Joseph Smith story saying that he was overcome by an evil virgin! haha!!!!!!!

    I knew an elder once who instead of saying the “resurrection of Christ” he slipped and said the erection of Christ

    in the spring time there was an elder in my ward and in his 2nd week out were reading from the Lorenzo Snow manual. He was asked to read a quotation and he was supposed to say “spiritual organism” but instead said “spiritual orgasm” and so now he was is associated with a spiritual orgasm!! hahahahahahahahaha!

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  6. Katya on December 3, 2013 at 8:14 PM

    One of my French teachers shared that when the missionaries were first teaching her and her family in France, one of them was asked to pray over a meal. He wanted to ask God to “bless the food” (“bénir les aliments”), but he picked a false cognate for the verb and got the pronunciation of the noun a little wrong, so it came out “blesser les Allemands” (“hurt the Germans”).

    With WWII in recent memory, though, that sentiment may not have been entirely unwelcome.

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  7. Sally on December 3, 2013 at 8:45 PM

    A companion was practicing the first discussion in the MTC in Spanish and tried to say Señor Brown it is a pleasure for us to be with you in your home (casa) but instead said (cama) which is bed.

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  8. Gary Bergera on December 4, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    Then there was the time a companion instead of saying “Joseph Smith s’est rendu dans un bois” [Joseph Smith retired to the woods], said “Joseph Smith a rendu dans une boite” [Joseph Smith threw up in a box].

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  9. The Other Clark on December 4, 2013 at 9:49 AM

    Here’s one that I remember personally committing:
    As a new missionary, after telling of the First Vision, I asked “Who were the two people in the light?”
    “Jesus.”
    “Right. And who was the other who said, ‘this is my beloved son’?”
    “His blessed mother, the Virgin Mary, of course.”
    “Uhh…”
    To a typical Catholic family in Mexico, it was obvious. But that was the last time I phrased the questions that way!

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  10. The Other Clark on December 4, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    The sword cuts the other way, too.
    Upon returning home, my parents thought it would be a great idea if I taught the family the discussions “just like you did in Mexico.” So I started in on the old 1st discussion and got as far as the Law of Witnesses. None of the examples I had used in Mexico worked:
    “Say your neighbor’s chicken runs out in the road and gets hit by a car….” (not really relevant in American suburbia)
    “When you and Maria were married, why did you need to have other people there to watch the ceremony?” (we used this one alot to tease out common-law relationships.)
    sigh.

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  11. Hedgehog on December 5, 2013 at 2:20 AM

    I did hear tell of a missionary in Japan who confused the word for dad with the word for breasts, in speaking of our Heavenly Father, further compounded by the gesturing of hands in front of his heart, but that may be apocryphal. In any case he should have been using the more formal word for father.

    I’ve always wondered whether the German word gift (meaning poison) ever got confused with the English word gift. That could change the meaning significantly in speaking of gifts from God.

    My own personal experiences are not missionary experienes, we had french visitors who seemed to be speaking of Pooh Bear (Winnie the Pooh), and it took us a while to work out they wanted a litter bin (poubelle). My attempt to buy stamps using French in Strasbourg was incomprehensible (I cannot get those vowel sounds right – even now I’ve forgotten how to pronounce the word for stamps), and they had to ask if I spoke German. I did. They understood me much better, and I got my stamps. I’ve no idea what I was asking for in French.

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  12. hawkgrrrl on December 5, 2013 at 8:43 AM

    We were on a cruise in the Mediterranean a few years ago with my brother in law. The three of us spoke Spanish, but it was an Italian cruise line (the ill-fated Costa line). My brother in law was studying some basic Italian phrases to try them out in the dining hall. He walked up to the hostess and told her we were there for the lunch seating and how many people we were. She quickly did a mental headcount of our group, found us a table and handed us menus. When we opened them, they were in German, and all our table-mates were German speakers. So much for his Italian!

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  13. Kevin Rex on December 5, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    A former bishop and stake president I know well had served in Japan. He said the translation of the First Vision into Japanese is very revealing in that the Church’s translation chose words that specifically mean actual beings appeared in person. While we tend to think that way as english-speaking Mormons, too, the word vision itself, along with the new lds.org links to the multiple accounts of the “vision” really bring into question how to translate such intimate spiritual experiences as visions and dreams, and even those two words are hard to distinguish exactly.

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  14. Benjamin Lee on December 6, 2013 at 2:59 PM

    In Chinese, “pig” (豬) and “pillar” (柱) are homophones, except for the tone, and many new missionaries who haven’t learned to mind their tones yet say that Joseph Smith saw a shining pig (光豬) instead of a pillar of light (光柱).

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  15. Trev on December 7, 2013 at 3:06 AM

    A couple more Chinese from the mission:

    A companion explained to someone at the door that “we are all the daughters of Heavenly Father” (the word for “children” as in sons and daughters is “er2nv3″ and he accidentally reversed the syllables, which means daughter).

    A doctoral student was speaking at a baptism, and he began his introduction by saying what to me sounded like, “I was sitting in the middle of taking a poop, and I started thinking about this talk. And I kept thinking back to it. You might think it’s strange that I’d think of this in the middle of pooing…” I thought he kept using the “casual” (i.e. “poo” or “take a ___” versus “defecate”) verb for defecation: da4bian4 (4 means falling tone).

    It shocked me, but he kept repeating it. I was on the front row and looked behind me. All the audience were just watching as though nothing was going on. I was flabbergasted and wondered if it was a cultural thing I was totally missing.

    When we got home I asked my Taiwanese companion why he would bring that up in that setting. Was it a cultural thing? He looked confused, but when I asked again in Chinese (we’d speak English in the apartment) he responded, “Oh… he was talking about defending his thesis, da2bian4 (rising and falling).”

    I told him I thought he had been saying “da4bian4.” My companion looked at me with a bit of surprise and then looked like he was thinking as he repeated to himself, “Da4bian4… da2bian4..” and nodded, “yeah… they do sound kind of alike.”

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  16. New Iconoclast on December 10, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    I was with an Italian family – mom, dad, son about 11, nubile daughter of 15 or so – for supper once, and I overestimated my ability to invent understandable Italian words by “latinizing” English ones. We were discussing the differences in food and I said that while they shopped every day, we in the US tended to buy food with more “preservativi” (which I hoped meant “preservatives”). Son starts to giggle uncontrollably; daughter blushes and eyes me strangely, Dad swells up and looks indignant, Mom almost faints. Turns out that word means “condoms.” (I guess that makes a strange kind of sense.) So after a VERY FAST explanation, I learned two new words. The correct one is “conservativi,” which has nothing to do with your politics, but everything to do with your food. :)

    My wife had a companion in Bolivia once who confused “hambre” (hunger) with “hombre” and told an investigator, “Si, tenemos mucho hombre en la noche” (we have many men at night.) No word on whether they were ever baptized.

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