Lost in Translation

Residing in a non-native English speaking country inspires linguistic and communicative innovation. Whether ordering a coffee, directing a cab driver, or when trying to convey larger ideas, like, “No, I do not want to go out with you,” expression demands the creative and the savvy.

After seven years of formal Spanish education and years of dating a French man, my foreign language abilities are no better off. I am becoming sort of hopeless, even with the expectation and potential of “full emersion.” In foreign countries, I have found it extremely difficult to remember and pronounce even the simplest of phrases. In Turkey, “teşekkür ederim” (“thank you”) has been repeated to me ad nauseam, but I still find myself mumbling in English and under my breath, rather than attempting Turkish. I speak English to everyone, as though, just saying the words means something. Subconsciously, I think that if I repeat the same thing more than once, it will eventually be understood. This parroting  is not helpful to anyone.

In Hanoi, I decided it was high time for a hair color re-dye.  Realizing that it would be impossible to explain color in broken English, I smooth my hands over my hair and point at a Paul Mitchell poster of a model with reddish blonde locks. The male colorist seems to understand and offers me a sample of color swatches while running his fingers through my knotted hair. When I confirm a reddish-brown, he smiles, nods his head, sharply gestures to the chair, and brings out the black cape.

I am a trusting person, so I sit in the chair and watch calmly, as he mixes the color bowl and uses a brush to paint my hair with bright purple dye. At no point was I able to assert that the dye was burning my scalp or that I worried it was going to be the very wrong hue. Also, miscommunication with a stylist is always a possibilty, regardless of what country you are in.

When the color is rinsed and the two assisting Vietnamese girls finish drying and spin my chair towards the mirror, my glowing red hair is revealed. I look a little bit like Pippi Lockstocking or Run Lola Run and am now a definite stand-out as I walk the streets of Hanoi. I tried to get used to it quickly, but remained shocked each time I caught my reflection in the shop windows. This hair was nothing subtle.

That night at my hotel, the manager knocked on the door of my room and announced, “You have phone call.” I was confused because no one knows where I am and I do not have friends in the neighborhood: “He says he wants ‘girl with red hair.’”

I am not hard to find. Again, Run Lola Run.

When I pick up the phone, the man on the other line says, “I see you. Want time with you.” I try to ask who it is, how he knows me, and make attempts to clarify his intentions. He just kept repeating, “Want to make time with you,” or “You make time with me?”  I deduce that I am getting asked out by a Vietnamese man who I have never met, in barebones broken English, because, he spotted my garish red hair and followed me to the hotel. I try to kindly decline, though I am sure my response came off a bit rude, followed by a dial tone (this, need not be translated).

Most communications are based on necessity, and learning language never became so desperate, as in love. In a romantic fantasy, I imagine that most languages were transferred, not via commerce, but by lovers and suitors. In Cappadocia, Turkey, we stayed at a small hostel at the edge of Goreme, owned and operated by the native husband, “Mustafa,” and his wife, a South African woman, “Zeia,” who speaks English fluently. Mustafa is 11 years younger than his wife and, now into middle age, they are still very much in love. “A human being is a human being,” he tells me, after explaining he does not mind that she has gained weight over the years. I imagine him 20 years younger, barely through adolescence and trying to learn English to impress an older woman. Mustafa tells me, this is not so far off, and shares a secret, “To learn the language, you must touch the tongue.” He winks.

I have a friend who married a Portuguese woman, who was (not surprisingly) passionate and playful in the sack. The two had previously engaged in some sadistic dirty talking, where she would say things like, “You bastard,” and he would whisper, “You little bitch.” Anyway, experimenting with his newly acquired Portuguese, he says to her, “Sua desgraçada,” which he thought meant, “You naughty little whore.” His wife, taken aback, was initially offended, then started laughing and explained that the phrase actually translates into something like, “You unfortunate wretch,” which isn’t sexy at all.

There is something attractive about linguistic and communicative gaps- as though the mystery allows you to infer something more captivating (think dirty talking with no comprehension of the language at all). I once fell for a German, who used the most creative ways to express English. He was usually grammatically incorrect and often made no sense, though, I was always charmed by the way his ideas hung differently, more poignant, if only because the expressions were new. I wonder what he would have sounded like as a native English speaker. Perhaps, he would not have liked me as a native German speaker, either.

It is impossible to tell.

When unable to speak the same language, it is not uncommon to resort to gestures and pantomiming. It is an easy first and last resort: pointing to the desired pastry, using fingers to indicate numerical values, or a nod of the head to say “excuse me” or “hello.”

Sometimes pantomiming can get complicated, in other situations, downright dangerous. Like, yesterday, at Starbucks, I wanted a glass of water with my coffee.  I did not know the Turkish word for water and the two male baristas did not understand English.  When we are all smiling and looking very confused, I start putting my hand to my mouth gesturing a drinking motion, my mouth open, when again, they both look at each other and start laughing. I realize the gesture looks like the international sign for BJ, and I quickly close my mouth and put my hand back in my pocket.

Last week I was sitting with a friend at a café in Istanbul, chatting with the waiter, when he invited to a party in his village, “Everyone come for celebration,” then he says, “You know, for snip snip.” He makes the gesture of snipping off the tip of a finger.

“A circumcision party?” I ask him.

He looks confused, then says, “No, no, just a little bit of snip snip for the boys,” again gesturing scissors and a cutting motion on the tip of his finger. I am lost, because, the only thing that made sense was circumcision, but he insisted that no, it was not and continued to use his fingers as a point of reference. I have never heard of this custom and considered that maybe it was glossed over in Anthro 101.

Naively, I ask, “You cut tip of finger?” I use the same snipping motion with my gloves.

“Yes, you know for 8, 9, 10 years old boys.”

I am still confused, also really interested in this party. I try to clarify, “So this happened to you?” I point, “You– had snip snip party?”

“Yes, me.  I have,” he says.

“Ok, can I see? Let me see your fingers,” I point to his hands and ask to see his scar.

His eyes get wide and he looks around, “No not here,” then laughs, “Too many people.”

My friend decides to nip this conversation in the bud (pun not intended), “You mean here,” (she points to the groin region), “Not here,” (points to her fingers).

“Ahhhh yes!” he says laughing. Finally, the pantomiming has paid off.

He emphasizes that circumcision is not as traumatic as it sounds: “Only little bit, then cry, then Turkish delight on tongue.” A Turkish delight is a small candy made of gel and dusted with powdered sugar. I remember the line from the They Might Be Giants song, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” that goes, “A Turkish Delight on a moonlit night.” Point of reference. Everything becomes clear.

I was a little disappointed to miss the Turkish village circumcision party, but had the feeling that maybe we were not linguistically equipped to participate. Imagine the awkwardness, “Congratulations?” or “Good luck?” These kinds of events are difficult enough, even without a language barrier. Also, my friend did not want to endure the coming-of-age screams.

My foreign language skills are partly lacking because I am afraid of being misunderstood or making a mistake, though in pantomiming and without a common language ground at all, it is likely that this will happen, anyway. Even in our own language, we are always subject to misinterpretation.

I have a friend who has been living in Korea for six years and every time I see her, I am always stunned by her broken English, wondering what happened. While traveling together recently, she has made things easier for us, having a calm, slow way of talking to natives. After speaking in broken English for the last few months, I start to understand why she would omit pronouns, drop unnecessary articles, and simplify the spoken word into non-grammatically functioning sentences. Habitually, she continues to do this, even with native English speakers. I have also met Americans abroad who, not only speak in broken English, they also have appropriated accents, something I have also started to sympathize with: English translates better when spoken with a native flair.

Usually, with a sufficient amount of desperation or desire, things work out, and everyone gathers enough information to get by.  Sometimes it is best to just call out a translator off the street. There are still times, when communication becomes impossible, the foreign words are left dangling in the air and dead silence is punctuated by the throwing up of hands. It is in these cases, when I resort to a very long, hearty, smile.  This smile lasts even longer when it is unnecessary or inappropriate. I probably come off looking like a well-prescribed Prozac patient, or in the best case scenario, just a friendly, redheaded foreigner.

Employing broken English, accents, pantomiming, gestures, awkward smiles… language and communication, generally, is fluid.  As in love, it works best when we take risks… and, we will do, whatever works.


In a string of masochistic decisions, I decide to quit smoking while traveling: first in Bali, then in Thailand, then Vietnam, now in Turkey. So far, I am unaccomplished; it is the one routine that can bring me stability, comfort and familiarity regardless of the changing climates, languages, smells and general feeling of strangeness that comes with being in a foreign country. Also, I am in Istanbul, a city renowned for its unabashed public smoking and customary hookahs.

There was a woman on the corner next to my hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi that sold Pho, a rice noodle soup she ladled from a vat from early afternoon until the streets begin to shut down around 11 or 12 am. I sat with my legs crossed, only about a foot off the ground, on a plastic stool that looks more like a footrest. She doesn’t speak English, but spreads out chopsticks, a spoon, a tin of sliced limes and lettuce to stir into the broth. Other joiners come and go, while I sit in silence, holding the bowl close to my face, the steam creating a wet film over my cheeks and chin. The seat isn’t comfortable, but the soup is sustenance, and I have found familiarity in the corner and the habit of our exchange. While in Hanoi, I visit the soup woman nearly every day.

When experiencing the unfamiliar, the mind cannot help but seek out patterns. Like a cat, we find our way back to the same corner restaurant, the recognizable street vendor, surveying our territory, finding unusual habits and daily routines; even the homeless man becomes a landmark. It seems that the act of smoking is a comfort, where the cigarette itself acts as a kind of filter, against those sensations and dissonances our minds have not yet reconciled.

We were kicked out of the Veteran’s hospital in Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve for a couple reasons: 1) I forgot to pick an end date for my reservation, and 2) Someone put a hole in the wall. The manager took a picture on his digital camera and approached me at the pool to ask what happened. I truly had no explanation, but offered him a plausible scenario having to do with bad sleeping habits.

In response, he tells me, “You- no more room.”

Instead of booking a room, we decide to head out for the night, leaving our bags with a friend. Though sans plan, we believe that with our charge cards and wits, we will be fine. After the fireworks were over and the floating lanterns had flickered out and fallen to the streets, the crowds broke up and we climbed into a tuk-tuk around three in the morning. I remembered there was a Sofitel somewhere outside of Chiang Mai and asked the driver if he could try to find it. When we stumbled in to ask about vacancy, the man behind the front desk looks us up and down: disheveled, drunk, and bloody feet (I had lost my flip flops).

Before we reach the front desk,  he is already shaking his head, “No.”

We hail another driver from the street, hoping to find a room; any bed would do. I jump in and out from the backseat, running through dozens of lobbies, each attempt with the same result. After over an hour, I am near tears: shoeless, jacketless, and essentially homeless in Thailand. I am still not sure if we were simply unappealing clientele, or if there really was nowhere to stay, but eventually the tuk-tuk driver says, “Last stop. If no room, you sleep at my home.”

I look at my friend and shrug, unable to fathom what exactly it would look like, waking up on the floor of the cab driver’s house. On our last stop, we roll into what looks like an abandoned building, the lights are off, and there is no front of house: “This is last try,” he explains. He talks to a young man out front, wearing a leather jacket and smoking a cigarette next to his motorcycle. Leather pulls a key from his pocket and hands it to the driver.

The driver turns to us: “Follow me,” he says, and begins climbing the open air stairwell towards the second floor. When the door swings open, we didn’t even take the time to give a cursory review; we were asleep on the bed before the driver left the room.

In the clarity of morning, we discover, we were not in a hotel. A stranger’s clothes were folded in the dresser and a handmaid quilt covered the bed. The patio door opened to a back alley on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, where clothes draped on line were attached to our window sill. It was an abandoned apartment and the room was not for rent. We looked around for a lobby, someone who saw us come in, or cared that we were about to leave. Finally, we just walked out into the street without paying. Not that we were trying to rip them off, but this was not a hotel, and, we were squatters.

I am okay with bouts of homelessness, or, in travel, I am accustomed to feeling that I am lost or out of control. What is more frightening, is when I am reminded of the distance of “home.” These feelings are usually precipitated by familiarity, being brought back to a memory, a place, something so close, that it is inescapably moving. For me, the flashback usually comes in the form of music. There was the time I sat alone at a restaurant in Indonesia listening to “Here Comes My Baby,” or when the cab driver picked me up in Saigon and the radio was playing, “Killing Me Softly” by the Fugees; walking through the night market in Nha Trang listening to “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen.

Culture clash.

The tourist industry has definitely picked up this need of travelers to find “home” even where it does not belong. There are the Western restaurants lining the streets boasting ingredients like “real cheese” and “large burritos” just to appease the tourists who are unhappy or dissatisfied with local cuisine. In Chiang Mai, there was a large Christmas tree in the lobby lined with little wrapped boxes and tinsel. When we went to Halong Bay off the coast of Hanoi, they thought it appropriate to blast the Titanic theme song from the boat (“Near, far…” etc.). To me, these Americanisms, make me feel even more disconnected: their foreignness reminds me of my own.

My last week in Chiang Mai, I had lost my wallet, my camera was stolen and my passport was being held at a tourist agency while I waited for a Vietnamese visa. The tour guide from our hotel (named “Kai”) drove me to pick up my visa and waited in the lobby while I walked up and down the street, denied time and time again by every ATM.


The emergency credit card didn’t work either. This was particularly stressful, as my Thai visa expired in only a few days. I had no access to money and it looked like I would face the additional fines of overstaying, while unable to get my passport returned. In all the commotion (my tears, throwing of receipts, and general dramatic performance in the passport office) Kai stepped up and paid the $90.00 to get my passport returned. Back in his car, I sat shotgun, like I do with my own father, while he gave me a paternal scolding and told me that I need to be more careful with my things.

After months of moving from hotel to hostel, through friends’ and strangers’ apartments, my definition of home has been reevaluated. I can’t help but nest where I land, even if only for a few days. The maids are like sisters, the manager is like my father, the front of house woman that asks questions like my mother; the back of house staff, like brothers. Some play familial roles, wondering where I have been, or what time I will be back. They tell me when my hair looks disheveled and remind me to eat fruit, instead of eggs for breakfast. There are these moments, when home is not so far away.

I made it out of Thailand, through Vietnam, and now to Turkey. There is an ebb and flow, in the current and rush of travel. Sometimes I am completely at ease, while other days, I am prepared to get catapulted to the streets, without money, homeless and/or squatting. There are also moments, I feel profoundly, like a foreigner.

And that is why, I am never surprised, every time I retreat back to light a cigarette, taking in the strange and unknown, through a filter I know so well.