Nerve Classics: Lost in Translation

The first time I dated someone who didn't speak the language. 

By Scott Mebus

Maybe it's the bourbon, but lately, we've been feeling nostalgic. With writing this good, can you blame us? "Lost in Translation" originally ran in 2006.

I rely on my tongue. It opens doors and eases my passage. It wins me friends and saves me from enemies. It starts a million fires, then just as quickly puts them out. I may not always use it honestly, but I try to keep my intentions pure, even when my words cannot be. Perhaps most importantly, I would be a single, celibate wretch without my tongue. Some people flex their muscles to impress. Others pull out their wallet. I open my mouth. My tongue is my only reliable weapon in the clutch, and while it has failed me numerous times, it has almost never abandoned me. But there is one problem with this vital organ. It only works on one setting: English. Its powers simply do not translate.

The problem was German. Not the German people, who are quite nice if you don't poke them, but the actual nouns, verbs and grammatical structure of the Deutsche Sprache. I tried to explain my difficulty with the language to my father, but he inexplicably valued our Bavarian heritage as the only birthright my grandfather bothered to pass down. So Deutsch joined the shortlist of things I couldn't talk my way out of. I was forced to muddle through four years of high-school German, followed by two and a half years of college German, but I remained hopelessly incompetent.

When it came time to send a crew of barely bilingual scholars abroad to the Vaterland, however, the exchange-program director discovered that her quota of Americans fell woefully short. I'd always wanted to see Europe, so I put my tongue to use. Convincing her that my apparent German ineptitude was actually a result of shoddy penmanship, I finagled a completely unearned B-minus on my entrance exam and boarded an international flight to Munich.

I spent the next six months at the University of Regensburg. Regensburg is a small city about an hour north of Munich, consisting of a gigantic cathedral, one large department store, the university and little else. Just about the only thing to do in Regensburg is drink large quantities of bier and talk. But I couldn't talk. When I spoke German, my trademark verbal acrobatics tumbled heavily to the ground. I couldn't banter, I couldn't subtly dig. Hell, I could barely order my Löwenbräu. I became a mute American with a big smile, completely missing everything being said around me. You know the guy: He's the eternally friendly foreign-exchange student from all those teen comedies who comes across as mentally deficient. I watch those movies now and shout at the screen, "Leave him alone! He's probably Oscar Wilde in his hometown! Don't trick him into sleeping with the elderly woman! Have pity!" But no one ever does.

My greatest weapon had been rendered impotent.

Then I met Marie. She was the French exchange student everyone chased in those same teen comedies, only here she spoke halting German instead of English. With a sly smile and an eternal cigarette hanging seductively from the side of her mouth, Marie seemed unapproachable. Especially since my greatest weapon had been rendered impotent. I would sit with her and her equally French friends and try to make pointed remarks about how Dutch hip-hop had left out both the hip and the hop, but it came across as a dumbed-down version of See Dick Run. Yet Marie didn't care. It took a while before I realized why she continued to sit next to me and blow flirty smoke rings into my face. She could barely speak German either. Neither of us had any idea what the other was saying, so we simply assumed the best. When I chattered on in my pidgin Deutsch, she heard Moliere. When she held forth in her pre-school German, my ears gave me Dorothy Parker. It was the perfect situation. We were essentially flirting with ourselves.

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