Purple Aroma: Some Things Just Don’t Translate

I am mortified. If you can imagine, I have felt this pure mortification continuously for the past three months. I’m exhausted, stressed, and one of my iPhone apps seems to be indicating that I am currently having a heart attack. These are just some of the beautiful side effects one experiences when immersing oneself into an unfamiliar culture—especially one that speaks a near-foreign language. One one one one one.

When I first arrived in Chile, I had a solid grasp of the Spanish language. This is no longer the case. Each day, my Spanish gets a tiny bit worse. When you start to learn new things in a language you’ve studied, you raise the bar: When speaking, you search for words you don’t yet know. When listening, you occupy your thoughts with what you don’t know instead of processing what you do know. You’re reaching for something you’re not quite ready to grasp. At least, I think it’s this phenomenon. To the doctors reading this, please let me know if I just sound slightly brain damaged.

In addition to the things you simply just can’t say and simply just can’t understand, there are also those things you think you know well; you say them with confidence and only later realize what a total ass you are. Here are some examples of what a total ass I am:

Let’s play an egg.

The Spanish word for game is “juego.” The Spanish word for egg is “huevo.” I have recently discovered, in a rather distressing way, that when uttered by a gringa these two words sound the same. I was hanging out with my host sisters when hunger struck. I told them I was going downstairs to “hacer huevos,” or “make eggs,” and was taken off guard when Carmen got so excited. Ignoring this (as, I’m realizing, I do quite often), I went downstairs to prepare my meal. As soon as the eggs hit the frying pan, Carmen came into the kitchen, sneakers on, asking, “Where are we going to play?” My heart broke into 500 little pieces when I realized she thought I had said, “I’m going to play games!” instead of “I’m going to make eggs.” Lucia explained to her the correct version of what I had said and tears were choked back by all. For the rest of my life, the sound of frying eggs will trigger this memory of a disappointed little girl, and it’s all my fault.

Misplaced shoulders

A friend of mine dislocated her shoulder when she fell while running after a pickpocketer. A few of us accompanied her to various emergency rooms in the city and, as she wasn’t confident in her Spanish skills (but was mostly just buzzed on paracetimol/ beer to kill the pain), I repeatedly– and proudly, might I add–explained to numerous hospital administrative staff that my friend had “misplaced” her shoulder. In retrospect, I’m thankful that no one was mean enough to point at my friend just south of the neck and say to me, “It’s right there.”

 Fish enchants me!

This one isn’t really a mistake, but I always think it’s wrong because it’s something of a false cognate. You say “Me encanta      X     “ when you love something, but to me it means “    X     enchants me.” In an effort to express my enthusiastic endorsement of a certain edible underwater creature, I say “Me encanta pescado,” which to me means, “Fish enchants me.”

 I have a skyscraper

This one goes way back, but I won’t forget the time I accidentally told my college Spanish professor I had a skyscraper (rascacielo) instead of a cold (resfriado).

I’m going for a fart

The fun thing about having lived in more than one Spanish-speaking country is that I get to learn lots of different ways to express one simple idea and confuse myself forever and always. For example, in Spain in order to tell someone you’re going for a walk you could say, “Me voy a dar un paseo.” Here in Chile, Spanish is spoken in a way that can more literally be translated to American English. You can say “Voy a andar,” “Voy a caminar,” doesn’t much matter. These both make sense to me, but while struggling to remember which one was most commonly used here, I got super confused and accidentally told my host dad, “Me voy de pedo,” which could literally be translated to, “I’m going for a fart.” He was probably quite pleased when I left the house immediately thereafter. (Tirar un pedo=to fart, in case you have upcoming travels and are suffering some bowel issues).

 Contact lentils

“Lentajes” is not the word for lenses, just fyi.

Here are some other things I’ve realized I can’t discuss at length in Spanish:

Swamps. Baking. The Addams Family. School uniforms. Karate. Eyelash curlers and most other things having to do with personal eye care. Breastfeeding.

 Confusing things I do:

I hold up five fingers when referring to any number one through one million.


Lamp in my bedroom. Still not sure what the synesthesiac description “purple aroma” means or what it has to do with Disney princesses.

It’s Tempting to Attempt, but Some Things Just Don’t Translate

I have long been guilty of comparing certain things to certain other things that are completely unrelated in reality. Like my life, for instance, as compared to the lives of characters in movies or television shows I’ve seen. Or Jeff Daniels to Dave Coulier. They’re the same, right?! No, they’re not.

When moving to a foreign place, it’s naturally tempting to compare everything new to something we’re familiar with. When learning a foreign language, it’s equally tempting to translate everything to its equivalent in your native language. We desperately seek exact equivalents or stark contrasts. Anything in between simply won’t do.









So much of my first month here in Chile was spent standing silently face to face with a Chilean, blinking at each other, secretly hoping subtitles would appear. I once curtsied when I left a social gathering because I could not think of the appropriate way to excuse myself in Spanish. Luckily the other guests were rich and probably didn’t think it was too weird, but still.

Nowadays (contrary to what I said earlier. I’m a liar), I’m actually doing quite well in Spanish, and though there are concepts and words that are still far from my grasp, I have even been referred to as “fluent,” (which I’m taking withOUT a grain of salt since I know that Chileans don’t sugarcoat things). But even without the language barrier thing, communication just seems to be a widespread problem here in Chile. I’m often left unaccompanied without warning. People will just disappear from my presence without explanation. “Um, where are we?” is something I say a lot here, since I’m often taken someplace that was not the assumed destination. People either over-share or tell you nothing and expect you to somehow magically telepathically know what’s going on.

Despite being confused 78% of the time, I’ve come to love these miscommunications and mistranslations. Accidentally agreeing to something you don’t understand. Accidentally insulting someone. Accidentally flirting with someone. Accidentally inviting someone to do something you don’t plan on doing yourself. These moments are often hilarious and I’ve learned they make for great stories. But the most important thing I’ve realized is that, at some point, the translating has to stop. You have to stop comparing your life, your unfamiliar experience, your new language, to something you already know. The whole point of coming here was to find something new.

  1. November 24, 2014
    • November 25, 2014
      • February 18, 2015

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