Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Embarrassing Stories

A few years ago I was at a professional conference, surrounded by translators and interpreters. I love attending conferences—they’re expensive, but I need the continuing education credits to keep up my certification, and I always enjoy the experience. I come away feeling invigorated, at least for a while.

We sat down to lunch in the big ballroom and listened to the keynote speaker tell a story, a story about a gaffe he made when he was just learning Spanish. He’d done something or other and was feeling embarrassed about it, so he said, “Estoy embarazado.” Funny! Because (false cognate alert!) embarazado does not mean “embarrassed,” it means pregnant. Oops. The crowd tittered politely, but I was unimpressed.

The thing is, that happens to just about everyone who’s learning Spanish. When people who are learning the language tell me that story, I always laugh, because it is indeed funny and the fact that it happens to everyone doesn’t make it any less embarrassing if it happens to you. And it makes for a good icebreaker. But I was in a room full of interpreters, so my thought was, really? That’s the best you could do? Because interpreters can tell some really good stories about the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to them.

Here’s mine:

I used to interpret for a lot of anti-terrorism courses--definitely not the kind of work I ever imagined I’d do when I was interpreting in a nice, quiet booth in graduate school. It involved lots and lots of time on the shooting range. I loved the work, even though it was physically demanding. There was a mechanical precision to everything on the shooting range, and a rhythm I got into when interpreting the instructors’ commands, barking short, neat orders into my radio transmitter to all of the students on the firing line. No one did anything, anything at all, unless it had been ordered by the instructor.

We stood uprange one day, the line of students preparing their magazines and weapons for the march up to the firing line, an instructor and I behind them. The students had loaded two or three pistol magazines with ammunition, checked their gear and awaited the order, which finally came.

“LOAD YOUR WEAPONS!” bellowed the instructor.

¡CAGUEN LAS ARMAS!” I shouted, just as forcefully.

And then I watched helplessly and turned beet-red as the rigid, perfectly straight line of men fell apart as all twenty-four men in fatigues doubled over in laughter.

The instructor, a former cop who was twice my size and who intimidated the hell out of me, turned to me and asked, “What did you say? What did you say??

It was a slip of the tongue, I explained. I left out the r. Carguen las armas = load your weapons. Caguen las armas = shit on your weapons.

I underestimated the instructor. He wasn’t angry or even exasperated—he was mostly horrified and intrigued that leaving out one letter could make that much of a difference.

I had developed a rapport with the group during the course, which meant that they teased me mercilessly all day. I thought I’d never hear the end of it.

Qué embarazada.