Lost in Traducción

I was uncool today.

You see, in protest against the cold I’d bought myself a hot water bottle, and in celebration I texted my friend to tell her about it. I was caught up in the moment and decided to use the Spanish word guaton instead of “water bottle.” My friend was quick to point out that guaton means “fat person.” The word I was looking for was guatero.

This is a guatero
This is a guaton

As most of my readers will know, I am quite a cool guy. Too often, my friends will approach me in the street and say, “Hey Michael, you’re quite a cool guy.”

It happens everywhere: When I’m at parties, when I’m on my way to work, when I’m leaning against other people’s parked motorbikes. However, there is a specific time when I’m decidedly uncool, and that’s when I try speaking Spanish. As a grownup, I realise that the most important detail to keep in mind when learning a new language is to make sure you don’t look silly when practicing the target language. Children have yet to learn this.

But I think the uncoolest thing I’ve ever done in Spanish was when I unfairly accused a Chilean man of something terribly unjust and un-called for. It was such a far-out bit of miscommunication that to this day I haven’t been able to bring myself to make reparations.

First of all, let me explain the situation (somewhat simplified for the sake of brevity): Earlier this year, I discovered a single bedroom apartment that was available for rent, and at a stunningly low price too. Until then, I’d always lived with a roommate, and I wanted my own place desperately. So I staked my claim and won the keys to the apartment. Problem was, I couldn’t move in on the first day of the month, and I had to move out of my other place at the end of the previous month. That meant that there were going to be a few days when I’d be in limbo.

A very good friend of mine offered me the use of his single-bedroom apartment while I waited for my new place to become available, and I accepted his offer graciously. It was going to be cramped, but it was only for a few days.

After some searching, I found the details of a flete, which is what Chileans call movers. I have just this moment learned that flete is Spanish for “freight.” The mover in question was named Pedro. He was friendly and he spoke some English. He also really seemed to know what he was doing. He helped me to load my cumbersome possessions onto the back of his flatbed truck and take them over to my friend’s apartment. It was a swift procedure, and Pedro and I parted as friends, with the agreement that he would return in a few days to help me transport my things to my new apartment.

This is Pedro, shrouded in darkness. Much like our friendship.

A day or two later, I received a message from Pedro. He’d strained his back while moving someone’s furniture and he wouldn’t be able to help me on the agreed-upon date. Was I willing to wait a few more days for him to recover?

I liked Pedro, and I did want to use his services. At the same time, however, I was sleeping on a couch and was totally invading my friend’s space. I didn’t want to wait for Pedro to recover, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings either. I explained to him, using a messy kind of Spanglish, that expediency was of the utmost importance. I told him that I would search for a more timeous mover, and in the event that I couldn’t find one, I would wait for Pedro to get back on his feet.

When John Lennon said, “Imagine all possessions,” I actually could.

Well, that very day I found my man. I don’t remember his name, but he was slightly more expensive than Pedro. Still, I was impatient, so I hired him. In a way, I was kind of glad that he was more expensive. I could use that as a way to smooth things over with Pedro. I intended to explain to him that the guy I found wasn’t nearly as good as he was. And, what’s more, this other guy was more expensive! So of course I would procure Pedro’s services again in the future, and even recommend him to my friends. I wrote all this out to Pedro in a Facebook message, and it was mostly in Spanish. Pedro accepted my explanation in a way that seemed cold to me. He wasn’t as chummy as he had been before, but I couldn’t blame him – he was losing a client, after all.

Aside Number 1: When learning a new language, it’s often helpful to learn new words along with their opposites. When I learned the Spanish word for boy (niño) I also learned the word for girl (niña). I also learned “long” and “short” together (largo y corto), as well as “expensive” and “cheap” (caro y barrato). This last one is important, because not only were these words that I was using with Pedro, but caro and barrato are also words that I sometimes get mixed up.

Perhaps you can see where this is going, but I assure you, you don’t.

Within my message to Pedro, I started writing “I have found someone who is more expensive than you are…”

In Spanish, it goes like this: “He encuento algien quien esta mas caro que tu…”

Aside Number 2: When learning a new language, it’s not uncommon to confuse words that tend to sound the same. For example, when I started learning Spanish, I would get confused between the word for “sixty” (seisenta) and “seventy” (setenta). I would often (and I still do) mix up “fifty” (cincuenta) and “five hundred” (quinientos). But my downfall with Pedro came about because, to me, the word for “cheap” (barrato) sounds very much like the word baracho, which is the Spanish word meaning “drunk.”

So my final message to Pedro wound up saying, “He encuentro algien quien esta mas baracho que tu…,” which of course means, “I have found someone who is more drunk than you are.”

I sent off that message without batting an eyelid, and slept soundly that night secure in the belief that Pedro and I were still on good terms. It was only about a week later, when I overheard someone say the word barrato in conversation, that thought back to that message to Pedro. I knew with certainty that I’d gotten “cheap” and “expensive” mixed up and resolved to rectify my error. I didn’t want Pedro to think I’d found someone better. I fully intended to go back and explain what had happened. It was a temporary lapse. My Spanish wasn’t so good, after all. But when I reopened the Facebook message and spied the word boracho instead of barrato, I knew that I was beyond redemption. My two-fold mistake was far to complicated and uncool to explain. I don’t think I even had the Spanish vocabulary to explain what had happened.

So I dropped the matter. I suppose it doesn’t matter really. I’m cosy in my own apartment, with my fat man keeping my tummy warm, and somewhere out there a really decent Chilean man thinks that a foreigner once accused him of being an alcoholic.

Fat man
I might have lost Pedro as a friend, but at least I’ve got my fat man.



If you play close attention to this blog post, you might notice that it is slightly different from the posts that came before it. The reason for that is because this post is being written almost exclusively with my thumb.

Before I continue, let us just savour the image of me slowly typing at a keyboard with one hand, elbow raised to the sky and thumb jabbing downward like Caesar condemning scores of gladiators to their deaths.

But the truth, Dear Reader, is that I’m writing this blog on my phone, and since I’m accustomed to using the swipe function while typing, my thumb is doing most of the work. The down side to this is that my phone will occasionally make corrections to my spelling without telling me first, so it’s quite likely that you’ll find more typos here than usual. For instance, my phone is of the belief that “alloy” is usually preferable to “about,” or that when I write “in” I really mean to write “I’m.” It’s a cold war between my phone and me, and neither of us wants to back down.

But I digress. The reason that I’m using my phone in the first place is the result of a series of actions resulting in the loss of my laptop. Now, like a Bond villain watching his secret base implode while 007 parasails to safety, I can’t help but wonder where it all went wrong.

He was handcuffed to a chair just a moment ago.

It all started, I believe, when I found myself a new apartment. It’s a single bedroom apartment located two blocks from the subway, five blocks from a shopping centre, three blocks from a gym, and one block from a pizza place. The rent is low, but the place is spacious. Although it faces east, the building provides cover which keeps the apartment cool in the afternoons. I couldn’t have asked for a better place, and the reason I’m trying so hard to impress you is because I want you to think highly of me before you read about what happened next.

I own a lot of things – a bed, a fridge, a sofa. Three things, you might say. Being the intelligent, independent guy that I am, I knew I’d need professional assistance to get these three things to my new apartment. So I got the information for a Professional Truck Man, snatched up my phone, dialed the number, and turned on the charm.

Me: Quiero truck! Tengo tres cosas! [I would like a truck. I have many possessions]

Professional Truck Man: Por supuesto. Seré 40 000 pesos. [Of course. It will be 40 000 pesos]

Me: Puede ser 30 000? [Make it 30 000 my good man and you’ve got yourself a deal]

PTM: No. [You sound intelligent and independent on the phone]


A day later the Professional Truck Man arrived, and I began loading my things.

(A good thing to remember when transporting a fridge is that it should always remain upright. In order to ensure that the fridge is always vertical, place half a carton of milk inside it. That way, if you tilt the fridge slightly, milk will spill out onto everything you love.)

Once I’d loaded my three possessions, I had a few other things lying around that I needed to take with me. I packed clothes into some black bags, put important documents into a satchel, and slid my laptop and my kettle into my backpack. I hoisted the backpack onto my shoulders, bent down to retrieve the bags of clothing, and suddenly noticed great volumes of water gushing onto the floor from my backpack. I instantly sprang into action.

“Save the kettle!” I yelled as I tore open the flaps of my backpack. I removed the kettle and poured the water that remained down the kitchen sink. Crisis averted. But to be extra safe I placed the kettle in with my clothes. Probably best not to let it get to close to the laptop again.

I loaded the rest of my things into the truck and got in next to the Professional Truck Man, who kindly offered me a swing of milk from a carton he’d found.

Half an hour later, we arrived at my new apartment. We unloaded my things into the centre of the living room, and I took a moment to catch my breath. I noticed that my backpack was still quite damp, and like a child learning that the square peg doesn’t exactly fit into the round hole, I slowly removed my soaking laptop from it’s watery grave.

I used my intelligence and independence to remind myself not to turn it on immediately. Instead, I opened the laptop and set it out on the balcony so that it could dry in the sun.

A day later, I put it in rice.

A day after that, I tried turning it on. Nothing happened. Not so much as a whir from the fan.

I knew then that it was time to call on my intelligence and independence again. I got the information for a Professional Computer Man, snatched up my phone, dialed the number, and turned on the charm.

Me: Laptop no funciona! [I need assistance with my laptop]

Professional Computer Man: Que paso? [What happened?]

Me: Agua! Mucho, mucho agua! [My laptop has some water damage]

PCM: Claro. Veré lo que puedo hacer. [You sound intelligent and independent on the phone]

About a week later, the Professional Computer Man returned my laptop to me, in pieces. He told me that the mother board was damaged beyond repair.

“Eres un idiota,” he said, which means, “Irrecoverable” in Spanish.

According to WebMD, my computer has a slipped disk.

So I am currently technologically stunted, but, like a brilliant yet misunderstood genius who has clumsily slipped into a vat of radio active waste, I have emerged more intelligent and independent than ever before. I’m also noticeably more isolated from society, just like those super villains you’re always hearing alloy.