Nerve Classics

True Stories: Lost in Translation

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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.

I never knew how important words were to my enjoyment of sex. Many times during our three-week romance, Marie would stop me a few minutes into cunnilingus and never let me finish; I couldn’t ask why. It’s not the kind of question you trust to a translator.

When she used her hand on me, she would whip my poor dick around like a truck driver downshifting, and with no tongue to assist me, I had no clue how to stop the violence without offending her. People can be touchy about their technique, and slapping their hand while screaming “No!” can send the wrong message. Also, during the act, Marie was prone to muttering in French under her breath. French is a sexy language, but it made me feel like an outsider, as if I were riding in a taxi and overhearing the foreign cabdriver talk on his cell phone. I came to the conclusion that without the exchange of words, our sex would be like our conversations: empty.

I decided to end the relationship. But how? I had no clue how to break up with someone I couldn’t talk to. I thought about using a third party to translate, then resolved to meet her face to face and do my best. I sat Marie down at the local Irish pub and, utilizing every German word I knew, gently let her go.

She seemed to understand — at least, she nodded her head over and over. I patted her hand, made a sorrowful face and walked away. I felt a peculiar sense of pride. I’d managed to breach the language barrier, and in the process, achieve the least painful breakup of my life so far. I was still patting myself on the back a few days later when she showed up at my apartment, ready to hit the clubs. Was this a joke? I stood in my doorway, keeping her in the hall as I once again tried to explain myself. This time, some of my meaning must have penetrated, because her face darkened and she began to shout in French.

Some of my neighbors, attracted by the sound of a good domestic spat, appeared in their doorways to watch the fireworks. Reaching to the fuzzy outer edge of my vocabulary, I tried repeating over and over that we just didn’t connect. The guy next door, who spoke excellent English, sidled up to me and quietly asked why I kept saying to Marie, “We don’t smell crazy bacon.” Great.

Eventually, Marie stormed away, embarrassed by all the attention. I retreated into my room, relieved that the entire ordeal had finally ended, and that we could now both move on. The first note appeared on my door a few days later. It consisted of one word, “Warum?” and at least twenty question marks. Warum is German for “why.” Was there a German word for “closure?” Marie seemed to think so, but I had never learned it. Notes appeared regularly for the next week or so, papering my door until my neighbors began calling me Warum. “Hey Warum, how are the French lessons going?”

I had to end this before she carved the word into my chest while I slept. I sat down with her in her room and once again tried to explain. I’d added a few new words to my arsenal (break; too fast; as a friend; restraining order), and I fired them off one after the other, praying I could take down this relationship once and for all. But my cram session went for naught as she glared back at me in frustration. “Warum?” she cried. “Wir kann nicht sprechen!” I shouted, which meant something in the neighborhood of, “We can’t talk!” “Wir müssen sprechen!” she replied (“We must talk!”). Was she mishearing me on purpose? At last, I was reduced to grunts and expansive hand gestures.

A lifetime of education fled the room as I flailed around like an extra from Quest for Fire. I made talking motions with my hands, followed by exaggerated shrugs and head shakes. Finally, after I’d acted out my new performance piece for a good fifteen minutes, the light dawned in her eyes. “Wir können nicht sprechen!” she said, her voice ringing with liberation. I almost fainted from relief. Was that so hard? I staggered out of her apartment and never saw her again.

I have a new rule now. If I can’t conjugate a verb in your language and you can’t do likewise in mine, there’s no point in even ordering an appetizer — the date’s over. I’m sure there are plenty of great women I’m missing out on, but what’s the use in dwelling on them? I need to talk to the woman, banter with her, flatter her and dazzle her. I need my greatest weapon, my tongue, or else I’m reduced to a savage. I make too many dumb mistakes in love to deny myself a chance to talk my way out of them. It’s what I’m good at.