My friends Parvathy & Rhianna trying to buy tomatoes in our training village
Lost in Translation
I lived in Zambia for 3 years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Living in a remote village where few people speak English requires you to learn the local language, but also gives ample opportunity for you to make a complete fool of yourself when you get it wrong. Zambia’s languages are in the Bantu language group, which are very lyrical and words that sound very similar can have opposite meanings, as you’ll see below. If you’ve read The Poisonwood Bible, she does an excellent job of explaining how the tone of a word determines the meaning, which is obvious to native speakers and extremely difficult for us new speaker’s ears to hear or for us to speak.
Here is a collection of my own foolish moments and those of some of my friends. Our language trainers never taught us curse words, but we tended to stumble across them by accident, so please excuse the unintended cursing. I’m sure you’ll be less offended than the people who they were first spoken to.
Katie is a vegetarian, which is quite normal in America, but highly unusual in Zambia. She was trying to explain this to her host family, using her new vocabulary words. She was trying to tell them “Ndelyafye umusalu”, which means I only eat vegetables. However, she switched the vowels and said “Ndelyafye umusula”, which means I only eat assholes (the insult, not the body part). Her host family stood there, absolutely shocked, and unsure of what she was telling them or how to respond. She repeated herself several times; trying to make it clear that she only ate vegetables and her family just kept staring and trying to figure out how to feed her. She didn’t realize what she’d said until the next day in language class when her mortified trainer had to explain to her the very rude word she’d really been using. Luckily for her, she didn’t have any to eat when she got home.
Anna was on a bus, waiting for it to fill up so that they could take off. Vendors will often roam around bus stations selling water and drinks, so she decided to get one to come over so she could buy some water. She shouted “Naomfwa cikala!” a few times, which means I feel dick. She meant to say “Naomfwa cilaka”, which means I feel thirsty. (See how switching up two letters can really screw you up?) The other people on the bus were absolutely horrified at her language, but had no idea what she meant. To a native speaker, the words aren’t remotely similar. After the 4th time, another Peace Corps volunteer explained to her what she was saying and after several moments of intense embarrassment mixed with outrageous laughter, she was able to correct herself and get some water. She decided it was safer not to talk much for the rest of the ride.
The word for cutting grass is “ukufuula” and taking off your clothes is “ukufula”. I was terrified to ask the boys who lived next door to cut my grass, as I didn’t want to end up with a yard full of naked kids or to scare them away from the crazy lady. To be safe, I just mimed the action and nodded when they said the word. I didn’t even risk repeating it.
My friend Rhianna surprised me in the village one day while I was at a Nutrition club meeting. The word for surprise is “ukupapa” and the word for giving birth is “ukupaapa”. It is extremely difficult for a non-native speaker to make the subtle differences and I caused quite a flurry of excitement when I explained that my friend had come to give birth. Then she came in and was obviously not pregnant, so they didn’t send for the midwife. We had quite a laugh about it afterwards and they made me practice saying both words until I could hear the difference.
Sarah had a well-building workshop in her village, which was a major deal. She invited the chief and all the important people for the opening ceremony. She had organized the rocks to be used and had a group of men prepared to start breaking them at the same time for dramatic flair. At the appropriate time, she went over to tell them to break the rocks. Her Bemba was very advanced, so she said what she thought was “It will make me very happy if you break the rocks.” However, what she said was, “It will make me very happy if you have sex with me.” In Bemba, it’s only one letter off, but with a vastly different meaning. The men’s mouths dropped wide open and they just stood there stunned, until the chief came over to explain her mistake. Then she wanted to crawl under the rocks, but the workshop went on.
I’m sure there are countless other moments when I didn’t even know I wasn’t making sense, but these are the ones I know about. We were trying so hard to use the local language and got very close, but subtle differences are critical when you’re learning another language.
How about you- have you ever made an umusula of yourself in another language?
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