208. Mangling Spanish: A Beginner’s Guide

One of my new year’s resolutions was to improve my Spanish, and I’ve finally resumed my linguistic studies. How have I chosen to study? In the same way all great scholars do, of course.

I’m watching cartoons.

Specifically, I’m watching the Spanish language dub of Avatar: The Last Airbender, my all-time favorite show. It’s a wonderful way to study. Just hearing spoken Spanish again is working wonders for my vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

My studies have reminded me of the linguistic horror stories (or comedies, depending on your point of view) I’ve heard from acquaintances in my homeland of Ecuador.

For example, there was a gentleman who asked for sopa to wash his hands. He meant soap. He received soup.

There was a lady who tried to explain that she had been embarrassed by a pastor, and used the word embarazada because of its similarity to the English word embarrassed. What she announced by mistake was that the pastor had made her pregnant.

Another lady wanted to ride a horse without a rope attached to its bridle, and asked the owner whether she might have permission to mount his horse without the ropa. This greatly alarmed the owner, since ropa is Spanish for clothes.

My favorite story comes from the husband of one of my middle school teachers. One day a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to his door. He informed them in faltering Spanish that he did not care to hear about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and was baffled at how angrily they departed.

Only later did he realize that instead of calling them Testigos de Jehová, Jehovah’s Witnesses, he had mistakenly called them Testículos de Jehová—Jehovah’s Testicles.

Not every story is a painful one. A favorite of mine is that of an interpreter asked to translate the following joke into Spanish for an audience: “What did the ocean say to the beach? Nothing. It just waved.”

This awful joke, a play on words, works only in English.

That brilliant interpreter didn’t let that stop him. Without missing a beat, he translated the question into Spanish and answered it with a new punchline: “Hola!”

This Spanish word for hello sounds exactly like ola, the word for wave. That, dear reader, is pretty dashed clever.

I haven’t made any truly memorable mistakes in Spanish, but that’s all right. I’m already quite good enough at making a fool of myself in English.

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