Lost in translation

View from Mounte Urgull in San Sebastián, one hour from Pamplona.
Jenna Zucker

Picture yourself out to dinner with a friend — a pretty standard situation, right? Now substitute a typical dinnertime for 10 p.m. and a friend for your new roommate who you’ve just met. You’re in a foreign country and don’t speak a lick of the language. Cue panic. Welcome to exchange.

It was my first night in Pamplona, a small university town in the north of Spain where barely anyone speaks English — let alone Spanish. I tried to learn some Spanish via Duolingo before I arrived, only to learn that they don’t predominantly speak Spanish in Pamplona — they speak Catalan.

When I ventured out for dinner in this foreign place I was looking forward to relaxing after a long day of travelling. My roommate, who knew some Spanish, let me practice the local tongue and order for the both of us. She wanted to start with a beer. “Hola! Una ceviche por favor.” I definitely felt cool thinking I knew the word for beer, but the feeling was invalidated when a plate of raw fish was brought to our table. ‘Cervesa,’ not ‘ceviche.’ This definitely broke the ice, but the thought of paying for my mix-ups more than once is less funny. I became determined.

Thankfully, I’m taking beginner Spanish; a safe space to practice rolling my r’s and masking my Canadian accent. Our first week of classes was dedicated to learning phrases to help us survive in this small town that speaks an unfamiliar language. 

We learned a few phrases including “tengo viente años” — “I’m 20 years old.” I proceeded to use my limited phrases when interacting with locals, but my poor pronunciations immediately clued them in that I was a foreigner. Little did I know that pronunciation really matters. When you mispronounce the accent in años, you’re essentially saying you have 20 buttholes, instead of that you’re 20 years old. 

It’s safe to say that within one week of arriving in Pamplona, I’ve learned the only phrase necessary to my survival: one coffee to go, please — un café para llevar, por favor! 

Besides forcing us to fake a lisp, my Spanish teacher is incredibly kind and eager to help us perfect the language.

From here on out, I promise to salvage the Canadian reputation by not correcting anyone who calls me a dumb American as I attempt to become a Spaniard.  

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