I meant well

So, I might have told part of this story before, so bear with me.

My older son, Zach, and his wife Lauren befriended a young couple from Cuba. The wife doesn’t speak much English.

I remembered 30 years ago, when Zach was in Kindergarten, his teacher asked me to invite one of his classmate’s mother over for coffee. They were from Japan and she was lonely. She spoke almost no English, but we were able to communicate by using a Japanese to English dictionary. It was slow, but it worked. She came over a number of times and always brought a small gift when she visited.

On one visit, she gave me a paper doll, with a little slip of paper attached. I looked up the words to ask her what it said on the paper.

She went back and forth in the dictionary, looked up and said “Made in Tokyo.”

It made me laugh really hard.

I thought it might be nice for my daughter in law to have a similar experience, so I went on Amazon and ordered what I thought was a Cuban to English dictionary.

My son called after they received the book.

My son doesn’t laugh super easy, so I knew something was up when I answered the phone.

Zach: Mom, the book you sent isn’t what you thought it was.

Me: It’s not a Cuban to English dictionary?

picture from cuba

Zach: What did it say on Amazon?

Me: Well, I can’t hardly see and I didn’t have any readers when I ordered it. I thought it was a dictionary.

Zach: It’s not exactly that. It’s a phrase book. It’s just filled with phrases in Cuban Spanish and then in English.

Me: Oh. Well, that’s not helpful.

Zach: No..no, but it is funny.



Zach: These phrases are fucked up.

Then he read some of the phrases to me. Here’s one that stood out for me:

“There was a huge scandal at the bank when they saw the video of the employees fucking in the closet.”

So, not even “Where’s the bathroom?” or “I’d like to buy some shoes.” No. Because when one is traveling and doesn’t speak the language, I think it’s important to be able to follow along if one finds oneself in a conversation about bank employees fucking in a closet.

He’s called me a number of times since. He said that he and his wife refer to it often.

He called the other day to let me know that they both know how to say “Javi has a big dick” in Spanish now.

They shared the book with their new friends, who were also terribly amused, and let Zach know that I chose poorly.

I mean, I am glad they are having fun with it.


Photo by Spencer Everett on Unsplash

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  • You chose extremely well. Brilliantly, in fact. I mean, it’s nice to have resources handy to hold a simple conversation in another language and, in the case of Spanish, to take regional variations into account, but it’s even better to be able to discuss bank employees fucking in the closet because you know that’s going to be one of the first things to come up.
    Seriously my wife used to work in a lab where a lot of non-English speakers and people whose first language wasn’t English would come to do research and one of the first things they’d teach each other was swear words. One of her favorites was the Italian “che cazzo dice?” which the woman who taught it to her said literally translates as “what the dick are you talking about?”

  • I first became aware of the realm of very-bad translations, when my son fell in love with badly translated Chinese. He now proudly owns a shirt with a graphic of a person throwing garbage into a can that translates “poisonous and evil rubbish.” Here are some more. Beware, they’re addictive: https://ltl-school.com/chinglish/

  • Once again, your life accidentally turns into a 3 Stooges Movie. But at least the book is a big hit with whomever is reading it, so congratulations. Too bad you didn’t know when you sent it or you could have bragged about how funny it was. Still, you deserve a ‘well done’.

  • Google “bite the wax tadpole” some time. Three of my favorite people ever are (or were) of Cuban extraction, Dirty Dan, Raul, and Vincent. Dirty Dan was run out of Cuba by the Castro regime, was a direct descendant of Jean Lafitte the pirate, and his sister smuggled some of his ashes back onto the island after he died of bone cancer in 2000.
    Raul runs a redwoods restoration business in northern California now, but we met him in Oakland in the eighties when he was rehabbing distressed properties and turning them into section 8 housing. Fresh out of college with his MBA, he was hired by a big corporation and given the assignment to go over the books and eliminate 250 jobs, which he did, the 250th being his own. Raul is a very good man, and our future is bound up with his businesses.
    Vincent is like a brother to me, even though we don’t see each other much any more. We worked together delivering furniture and appliances for years. When I had to move out of the house in Berkeley where I lived in ’96 by myself, I carried the first load out the front door to the borrowed work truck and discovered Vincent sitting on the lift gate, waiting to help. When I got out of jail in 2001 and needed somewhere to live, Vincent invited me to live in his house, and boy, was being the only white guy living in an otherwise all Black household an eye opener.
    Thank you for some mirth in this dismal week, and I hope you are doing well.

By Michelle


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