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About two years after I moved to Chile, a couple of friends and I set to subtitling a movie short that a friend was submitting to an international film festival. We were doing it as a favor, and for fun. The footage involved several hiphoperos (hip hop artists) talking about their art, about battles, about what it means to the kids in their communities to have this form of expression.

I’d been invited not for my in-depth knowlege of coa which is a jailhouse slang used among people in the lower classes, some of which has percolated up to middle class, giving us coin-name slang, and several words in verés, which are words taken apart and put back together al revés, or backwards. No, my friends would translate the coa into Spanish that I spoke.

From there, my job was to make Spanish into real English. Sure, we were native speakers, one and all. But after you’ve been here for a while, your English can get a little broken. Spanish grammar or word choice translated in English starts to sound normal. So it was my job to make sure the subtitles sounded like real English.

But when you’re not subtitling a movie short, and you’re just shooting the breeze with some friends, the whole messed-up word choice can turn into a bit of a game. You pause, smile, and point when your friends misstep, using the translation of a Spanish word in English, and then discuss what the right word is.

Consider this conversation I had with a friend:

Her: So I told him I’d go, but it turns out I can’t, because I’m compromised (from Spanish: tengo compromiso, I have previous plans)

and I pointed and laughed and said:

Me: You’re not compromised, you’re complicated! (from Chilean Spanish complicada, which means that it would be difficult, and thereby unlikely for you to do something).

Ahem. In this case, not better, just different.

For the most part, despite having been here for five years, my English is relatively intact. Every day is a mix of English and Spanish, with work and talking to family and a handful of friends in English, and out of the house and socializing and any bureacratic things and some reading and listening to the radio and on line chatting all in Spanish. I admit that I can be lazy, and with some English-speaking friends, we speak more of a mix, replacing patches of sentences in Spanish when the mood strikes us or when something is expressed better or more succinctly in Spanish. This I know is frowned upon, and I can make an effort to say it all in English when need be. But though I have to admit sometimes it’s an effort, I like to think I can do it like a champ.

But consider this beaut from Sunday.

I was up and out of the house very early to take pictures of the Santiago Marathon. Afterwards I was riding up the cerro when I got a call from an (English-speaking) friend (aka still life) who wanted to have lunch. So I toodled back down the cerro and we met up to grab a bite. During lunch I was explaining that I was pretty goofy tired because I’d been awake since 6:30. She looked at me, wondering why so early. And I explained that I’d meant to awaken somewhat early for the photo ops, but not quite that early.

I said to her, “It was so strange, to wake up at 6:30 in the morning, alone.”

She finished chewing her salad, paused for a second and said, “Why? do you usually have guests?” Which I’m sure was her polite way of saying, wait a sec, Eileen, you’re single, what’s up with the occupied other half of your bed?

And I looked at her and said, “No, I haven’t had any guests.” And then I realized what I’d done.

Me desperté sola = I woke up on my own (without any assistance, e.g. an alarm clock)

And I’d translated it (sin querer (by accident)) into “I woke up alone.” Which is a possible interpretation, but it’s not what I meant, and certainly not what I planned to announce there at lunch at Café Mosqueto (get the quiche plus salad, very tasty).

And that, my friends, is what I’d call a misinterpretation. Thank goodness for polite friends who don’t speak with their mouths full and who clarify before alerting the presses that I’ve taken up with a new pierna peluda (lit: hairy leg, we use it in Chile to mean your (male) mate.) We don’t need that kind of thing going through the witches’ mail (correo de las brujas=the grapevine). Especially when it’s invented (inventado=made up, not true).