lost in translation

Communicating in a new language can be a struggle. Share your stories of funny, frustrating, or confusing encounters in the US.

Visitor Voices

  1. My mother came to this country in 1927 from Warsaw, Poland. She was 16 years old and arrived on Washington’s Birthday. She had to stay on the ship at the dock for an extra day because it was a legal holiday. So every year on February 24th Mommy baked a cherry pie in honor of the first president and her arrival in America.

    Helen Schulman

  2. I came over, with my parents, on August 28, 1975. I was three years old, and we came from Moscow, USSR. We settled in Forest Hills, Queens, where I grew up. There was a large Russian Jewish population there, not as large as in Brooklyn(Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay), but big enough. I grew up with people from Kiev, Odessa, Lvov, Kharkov, Moscow, Leningrad, Vilnius, and other smaller cities in the Ukraine and Byelorussia. Today, I live in East Hills, NY with my children.

    Anna Reznik

  3. I am Jewish from Russia. I came (to America) in 1999. That was when I was born.

    evan rosenbaum

  4. I have lost many beautiful experiences because of language, but good people always were willing to help me so I can understand the beauty of this country. Now even, I still need to improve every day in the English language. I can help others as many helped me.

    javier

  5. My 3 year old father arrived in NYC in September 1903 from Bialystok, Poland. The family spoke Yiddish, Polish, Russian and German. As they learned English, phrases got mixed, for example my grandfather would urge thoroughness by exclaiming: “Wir muessen ein ‘clean sweep’ machen!”.

    david menkes

  6. My mother’s name is Pauline Berman Quittel. Her mother, Sarah Berman, came to the United States from Warsaw, Poland to join her husband, Morris, in about 1915. Morris had established a small business and their home in Yonkers. My grandparents had 5 sons and one daughter, my mother. 4 of their sons served in the Armed Forces during WWII; all thankfully returned unharmed. The 5th and youngest had retinitis pigmentosa and gradually lost his sight. As a child I always felt my grandmother’s essential paradigm was that something terrible was always about to happen . . . and I didn’t understand, until I was a lot older, all she had been through. This little story, Irving Renew, is hers:

    My grandmother, Sarah Berman, was widowed in about 1962 and from that point forward, she spoke non-stop about her singular dream: to move from Yonkers, where she lived, to the Bronx. I graduated from college and returned from graduate school and I asked her: “Grandma, why is it taking you so long?” And she replied that the city of Yonkers had a redevelopment program and she was waiting for someone to come and buy her home so she could move.

    Year in and year out, whenever I visited, she always said she was still waiting and still having talks with someone named “irving”.

    Finally, this same question and answer went on for so long, I realized that no one could possibly work for a city agency in the same position for all of that time, so I asked her: “Grandma, is this Irving still the same person?” “No, NO!”, she said emphatically, “how could one person work for the same place all of this time!?!?” From that point forward, I realized that all of the time she had talked to me about “irving renew”, what she had meant, of course, was “urban renewal.”

    fran quittel

  7. I live in the Bronx. My Bubby, Zaidy and uncle came from Poland after World War 2. They only spoke Yiddish. They then had my other uncle and my dad. So, my dad’s first language was Yiddish but he also knows English.

    Talia Kupferman

  8. My father, Meyer Varty, came to America shortly after WWI from the town of Brechun in what he called “sometimes Russia, sometimes Rumania.” Today his town is located in Moldavia. He was the oldest of five children and the first to be sent to America. My mother was the youngest of four children and the only one born in America in 1914 a few years after her family immigrated. My father quickly learned English in addition to the Russian, Rumanian, Hebrew and Yiddish languages he already spoke. He learned a trade and opened a fur shop in Brooklyn shortly before the depression. With the help of his second brother, Irving, who arrived in America in the mid-1920s and became an insurance agent, he and my mother got through the depression with their business surviving, one child and a second on the way. My father always felt he was a bit of a “greenhorn” and my mother was the true American, complete with an American education. He always felt he had a heavy accent, but to me and all my friends he simply had a “Brooklyn Accent.” My Dad, complete with a Brooklyn accent, wonderful dancing skills (from Arthur Murray lessons in days as a single man) and his strong work ethic, was as American as anyone whose ancestors stepped off the Mayflower.

    My father tried to pass his history on to me by telling me bedtime stories of life in the old country. Unfortunately, these stories stopped when I was about eight and by the time I wanted to clearly recall his history and tell his story to my children, he had died. For those fortunate enough to still have their loved ones, or for those who lived the immigrant experience, do not waste a moment and write or record the stories so they will be able to passed on to future generations.

    Gail Henner

  9. I’m from Ukraine and arrived here in 1994. When I started to work for my first company, my boss used to go around the floor every Thursday to talk to everybody. That was my 3rd week in the country and first week working for the company. I always tried to escape conversation and run outside for a smoke. One time I was not able to and my boss asked me the simple question: “Did we meet before?” I said, “My name is Ayzik.” He asked me again the same and I answered him the same, thinking how could not he remember my name. After the probably fourth time he gave up and said to me: “Of course we met before.” We have laughed a lot of times remembering that.

    Ayzik, Ukraine, Arrived US 1994

  10. My grandmother Ada Feibish came to the US in 1917 settling in a Jewish community in Memphis,Tennessee. She married and when her daughter was 9 she moved to Bronx, NY. Everywhere she went she would pick up an accent as she learned English. Imagine a Russian, Yiddish, Souther drawl, and “theity thierd and third” [thirty three and a third] accent.

    She was driving a car without a license, got pulled over by the police, and sent to court. The judge could not stop laughing over my grandmothers accent. Grandma explained that she had been driving for years without a license. Why had no policeman pulled her over before? It was their fault. The judge just laughed and told her to get a license!

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    Carol Desforges

  11. I came to the United States in the second grade. One day, in the school playground, all the children were leaving. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but obviously I couldn’t speak Chinese to the American teachers. I saw another Chinese boy in the playground, but I wasn’t sure if he was actually Chinese or maybe Japanese. Finally, I mustered up the courage to speak to a stranger at the age of seven, and said in Chinese, “ni shuo zhong wen ma?” (”Do you speak Chinese?”). Luckily he did, and he became my best friend at P.S. 41. When I told my mom about Michael, she was surprised that neither he nor I remembered that we had met a year before when I visited the United States for half a year in kindergarten.

    Henry Zhang, Beijing, China, arrived NYC in 1996

  12. When we arrived in 1954, my parents had to find jobs. My Dad worked in a haberdashery and my Mom found a job in a clothing factory. I was placed in a Jewish Day Nursery at the age of 4. I was bi-lingual. Coming from Israel, I spoke Hebrew and our home language was Slovak, as my parents had left Slovakia for Israel after the war.

    One day, I came home from Nursery School so proud to have learned my first English word. “Shut-up!” Because I babbled on in my two languages, a fellow classmate taught me the word by repeatedly telling me to shut-up! Before long, I bacame tri-lingual.

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    Marsha

  13. My great grandfather was an Italian immigrant in the 1910s and became a profitable peach farmer in South Jersey. In the 30s, my grandfather was working with him in the orchard and asked to leave early go to see the Philadelphia As play the Yankees. My great grandfather, never a huge fan of baseball and not fluent in English – heard the word “Yankees.” “Joe Dimaggio?” My grandfather said yes, that Joe would be there. So my great-grandfather joined him for the game.

    And what a game for him to see. It went into extra innings, 11, in fact. Throughout, my great grandfather would turn to my grandpop and ask, in Italian- “Sammy? Is this Joe?” He wouldn’t speak anymore unless my grandfather nodded, in which case, he would yell– “Eyyy Joe! Hitt-a the ball!”

    But, mind you, he was surrounded by Philadelphia fans. And a few innings in, the fans behind him started jeering against his cheers — “You Meatball! Goomba! Can’t hit the ball! Go back to Italy.” — And it wasn’t quite clear if they were really yelling at Joe, or at my great grandfather.

    Well, by the 11th inning, the game was tied 1-1 when Joe came up to bat. Great-grandpop, steadfast, yelled – “Eyyy Joe! Hitt-a the ball!”

    And he did. Joe hit the ball clean out of the park, driving in three runs for the win.

    And the Philadelphia fans were silent.

    My great grandfather, turning around, mustered his better English and- beaming – said, “What’s-a matta? Got a meatball stuck in your throat?”

    And the Philadelphia fans slunk away.

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    Elena

  14. I was born in the United States in Brooklyn, New York. I am currently a high school student. I travel back and forth from New York to Virginia, for I attend school in Virginia. I find New York to be very diverse and exciting. I find Virginia to be historical. I speak English, Spanish, and Japanese.

    khayla

  15. No one here understands me I go into stores not able to communicate, I can’t speak the language. I wanted to go to the library to learn, and they didn’t let me in without a card, but I couldn’t tell them what I needed. I ran home crying.

    Pepy Landau, Columbia, Arrived US 1967

  16. This is the story of my mother’s arrival in New York in 1927. She was 16 years old and came to America with her mother, older brother and younger sister from Warsaw, Poland. She joined her father and two older brothers who had emigrated years earlier. My mother was able emigrate because her father was a naturalized citizen and not subject to quotas in force at the time. She was proud that the family traveled Second Class on the ship. Aboard ship they were served Jello which my mother had never seen. When Mommy saw the dessert shaking in the plate, she thought there was a ghost inside and refused to eat it! Although it was a standard dessert in our home Mommy never touched it.

    The ship docked in NY on February 22, 1927 which was a national holiday. They had to remain aboard the boat for an additional day because dock and customs workers were off for the holiday. My mother described the experience as “torture”. In commemoration of my mother’s arrival we celebarated George Washington’s birthday every year with a freshly homebaked cherry pie!

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    Helen Schulman

  17. One of the funny things that happened to me was at the Flushing train station. One afternoon, at rush hour I was waiting for the # 7 train. Suddenly one of the employees started yelling something like “loco” “loco” and all the people ran to one side of the platform. I thought that a madman or maniac was on the loose. So, with my heart pounding I run with the crowd waiting to see the crazy man, but when I saw the other people’s faces I noticed that they were not disturbed at all, so I asked a lady next to me where the “loco” was. After looking at me for a second she realized my misunderstanding and explained to me that there was not any loco around. What the MTA employee was hollering was “local” but to my Spanish speaking ears it sounded like “loco”. When I told this story to my family they were cracking up in laughter.

    Gilberto Ramirez, Peru

  18. The very first problem that we had to deal with was the language. We did not speak English at all, so it was very difficult for us to communicate our needs or our wants. I still remember the time when I was very hungry and I entered into one of the McDonald’s and left with empty hands because of my lack of the new language to order whatever I wanted to eat or drink.

    Gilberto Ramirez, Peru

  19. The Like family had come from Durban, South Africa and were headed for Dallas, Texas. Stopping over in The City of Cities (New York, of course!), they caught their connecting flight to Dallas. After the 16 hour trip from South Africa, they were relieved to find that after another mere one and a half hours they would finally arrive. But…it was Dulles, Washington!

    Obviously the travel agent in Durban, not being familiar with America in those days, had made a boo boo. Dallas/Dulles…a minor difference…two vowels.

    Welcome to the wonderful world of immigration!

    Mary Shalit, Johannesburg, South Africa, Arrived US 1977

  20. There was the story of June Sherman, another newly minted South African immigrant. June had come from the exquisite city of Cape Town. She was exceptionally resourceful and had already opened a gym in a new shopping strip near her home. Driving home late one afternoon she saw two men loading her TV set into their car. Dashing across the street to her neighbor’s house she called 911 and wailed into the mouth-piece that two strange men were loading her TV into the boot of their car.”

    “Ma’am, I am very busy with serious stuff” replied a gruff voice on the other side, “Please don’t waste my time with jokes”. “I’m not joking” she screeched, her voice getting louder and louder with frustration and anger.

    “They really are stealing my TV!” “Well,” replied the seriously polite policeman, “if, in fact, what you say is true, then it must be a toy TV, and that’s not really serious, man.” “No, it’s not a toy” she screeched,”it’s a 14 inch, real Sony TV!” The policeman hung up, realizing that he would get nowhere with this crazy lady.

    You see, where we come from the ‘ boot’ is the trunk of the car; a ‘ flat’ is an apartment; a ‘ lift’ is an elevator and a ‘ rubber’ is an eraser! The list goes on and on…

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    Mary Shalit, Johannesburg, South Africa, Arrived US 1977

  21. Sometimes I forget that literal translations of German proverbs do not necessarily make sense in another language. When discussing a newspaper article about politics and corruption with a few people recently, I commented, “Well, you know, the fish stinks from the head.” There was silence, and then one of the guys said, “Why would a fish smell from it’s head, and what does fish have to do with politics anyway?” How should they have known that the proverb in German means “corruption starts at the top?”

    I.M., Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Arrived US 2005

  22. Like most immigrants, I don´t have a typical American name, and most of the time I don´t regret that but whenever I am asked for my name on the phone I wished that I could just say “Betty Miller” or “Emily Smith”. Whenever I am asked to spell my name, I unfortunately never remember NATO´s phonetic alphabet and instead use my personal phonetic system – words that come to my mind – but this “system” hardly ever works. This is how the conversation sometimes goes: She says, “Could you please spell your name for me?,” and I say: “Yes, sure. ‘I’ as in Israel”, and the person on the other end of the line says ‘E’ as in Esrael?,” and I say, “No, it is ‘I’ as in Indiana”, and she says, “E as in Endiana?” At some point I start to wonder whether it is my pronunciation or the lack of geography knowledge or spelling skills of the person on the other end of the line. Then I finally have the brilliant idea to say “I as in I am an immigrant.” I hear laughter on the other end of the line, and I hope that the spelling of the remaining letters does not take as long as the one of my first initial…

    I.M., Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Arrived US 2005

  23. We came to the United States from sunny South Africa in the late seventies. It was not easy leaving the lush land of our birth, but Apartheid, much like the Jim Crow system, had made it necessary to emigrate.

    Our baby was 2 years old when we arrived in Texas in 1977 and I had just gotten all three older children settled in their respective schools and now it was his turn. I took him to the JCC Nursery School and left for 2 hours. When I came back he was unhappy and the teacher was irate.

    “I thought you said that your child was toilet-trained”, she hissed. “He is”, I replied. ” Well,” she said, straightening up on her 5 foot frame, ” when I asked him if he wanted to go to the bathroom, he said, “no!”

    I laughed and said that where we come from the “bathroom” is where you take off your clothes and get into the tub. The “toilet” is where you go to the potty.

    The next day our little girl, then 4 years old, was having her first playmate over. After the two girlies had finished a lovely afternoon playing make-believe in our cramped little apartment, the mother arrived to fetch her daughter. Chatting for a few minutes she gathered up her child, smiled sweetly and said, “See ya later”.

    Oh megosh! I thought. She’s coming back. I don’t have anything for tea! I scooped up the 4 children and bundled them into the station wagon. We trundled off to the nearest supermarket where I bought some delicious goodies. When we got home I whipped the apartment into shape, organized the supper and waited, and waited and waited…

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    Mary Shalit, Johannesburg, South Africa, Arrived US 1977

  24. I’ve lost track of how many times things have been lost in translation. I never expected it to happen even once, believing firmly that my grasp on the English language was more than solid. ‘Pencil’ is what we call a paintbrush in Icelandic…yet knowing both words, I still get them confused. ‘How are you’ is not a question, but a greeting. ‘Excuse me’ means ‘get out of my way’. Yet all things considered, American English is pretty easy to communicate in.

    Orri Eiriksson, Kopavogur, Iceland, Arrived US 2007

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