Living in a foreign country, we often encounter misunderstandings that surface when two different cultures collide and two different languages must be understood. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation brilliantly captures the ethos and pathos swimming in that sea of confused currents. Because I am married to a German, whose native tongue is different from my own, I experience this on an almost daily basis.
Earlier in our relationship, when my ex-beau (current husband) and I started dating, the usual insecurities that plague initial dating rituals were heightened by the fact that his English was a tad better than my German, which was limited to ordering Bier, Wein or Bratwurst in restaurants or at German festivals. Thus, we started our relationship mostly in English, which was much easier for me; and I was grateful for his willingness to practice his limited English, allowing me to communicate lazily in my native tongue.
One day when we were together, I sneezed and instead of saying ‘Gesundheit’, something even I knew with my limited German, he said something that sounded like ‘Plaeschern.’ I automatically replied “Danke schoen,” as my mind quickly registered a new German word, ‘Plaeschern’. Although I couldn’t find it in my Langenscheidt German dictionary, I confidently assumed it was slang for ‘Gesundheit’, and used it whenever other Germans sneezed. Oddly enough, they never acknowledged or responded in kind. Because odd things encountered in foreign countries have a tendency to turn quickly into accepted routines, I thought nothing more of it. This continued on for months: Whenever I sneezed, my German beau said: “Plaeschern.” At the time, we were new to each other, wanting to make a good impression, still working out our insecurities, etc…so I felt stupid asking for German lessons or German language clarifications. I wanted to appear as if I knew what he meant or said, but often I didn’t. Then, as our relationship progressed and we became more and more comfortable with one another, I became bolder.
The next time he greeted my sneeze with a “Plaeschern.”, I hesitated a moment and then got up the courage and inquired, “What does that German word mean?” He looked at me with surprised eyes and asked, “What German word?” I replied, “What you just said to me.” Looking confused, he answered, “It’s not a German word; it’s English.” “Oh,” I said. “What does it mean?” He looked at me as if I had lost my mind and replied. “I don’t know. I learned it from you.” “From me?” I asked in disbelief. My immediate thought was, “No, you didn’t learn that strange word from me, because it’s not an English word. You must have picked it up from someone else.” But I didn’t say so. We were both confused and disturbed. I still didn’t understand what he was saying so I asked him to spell it out and he replied “P L E A S U R E”. Spelling it out didn’t provide the clarification that I had hoped. I was still baffled and it must have shown because he added, “It’s what you say in English when I sneeze.” I immediately replied, “No. I don’t. I don’t say pleasure. That’s ridiculous!” And then I thought, “Well, I suppose one could say that, given that I had read somewhere that a sneeze is like a mini orgasm. But then I would have asked a question, “Pleasure or pain?”, not made an announcement of “Pleasure.” How absurd! I kept thinking of “Gesundheit” and wondered, “Is my German so bad that when I say Gesundheit, he hears Pleasure?” And then it hit me and I realized what it was: Whenever he sneezed, I said, “Bless you.” Apparently, because he had never heard that phrase or knew the English word ‘bless’, he assumed that I was saying “Pleasure.” I suppose it sounds kinda similar to “Bless you”, if you are a non-native English speaker. We laughed for days over this little misunderstanding, and I understood why others ignored me when I said “Plaeschern.” after they sneezed. They probably thought me odd at best and wondered what language I was speaking.
The experience made us realize that whenever in doubt, especially when different languages or cultures are involved, it’s better to ask for clarification than to assume. Not always an easy thing to do, I know. But at least, it provides comic relief, like the scene in Lost in Translation when “Rip my stockings!” is misunderstood by Bill Murray’s character to hilarious effect. Pleasure!