Translators and Interpreters Reveal The Most Awkward Conversations They’ve Had To Relay
One of the best things about this world is how different all the people are. But those amazing differences, one of which is language, can also be pretty annoying when trying to communicate. But that’s what interpreters and translators are for. They bridge the gap between people who don’t know each other’s languages.
But sometimes, the conversations aren’t quite as easy or polite as one would think. Sometimes, these people have to translate the weirdest, most awkward, and most awful conversations ever. Check out these translators’ and interpreters’ cringiest stories.
I was a conversation teacher for adults in Japan who wanted to practice more natural English (not strict formal grammar, but conversational). Not quite an interpreter, but one student was an 80-year-old man the others called “Mr. Dictionary” because his vocabulary was seriously exhaustive. There were very few words that could stump him; if there was one, it was usually some type of slang.
On the rare occasion that he brought a print-out to ask about a new word, I would get both excited and nervous to see what it was. This was in 2007. One day he pulls out a paper and says, “I heard a news story about this new Beyonce song. Please tell me…what does this mean?”
And with all eyes in the class waiting for my wise translation, he loudly and carefully pronounced, “Becky with the good hair.” Reddit user: heyheyhedgehog
They Called You a Horndog
I’m a translator, which means I only work with the written word. Not normally anything particularly juicy. However, I once had to deal with a landlord writing to Facebook to try and get Facebook to take down derogatory comments from his tenants. It wasn’t like my average jobs, but I took it on because it seemed interesting.
Basically, the landlord was accused of giving apartments to people who would hook up with him, so I had to translate a whole bunch of comments calling him a horndog, saying the whole tower block had been under his desk, etc. Someone called him the Lidl version of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which I thought was pretty hilarious. Reddit user: annana
It’s the Country You’re In
One of my friends lives in the United Kingdom and usually helps out Hungarian expats there. So, one older guy applied for citizenship to live there permanently. At the interview, the first question came: “So, how long have you been living in the United Kingdom?” She translated this to Hungarian.
The guy’s response: “What’s that?” So she explained as quickly and succinctly as possible that the United Kingdom is the name of the country he wanted to be a citizen of. Reddit user: Durumbuzafeju
Maria Was Gone
I was interpreting for a high school teacher who was participating in an event to try to get dropouts to come back to high school. Anyway, the school gave us a list with addresses that we had to go to, to try to persuade the kids/parents. We go to this one house and ring the bell, and the mother answers.
I start translating what the teacher is saying, and we go back and forth with the mother, asking her to see the kid (let’s call her Maria). The mom kept insisting we couldn’t talk to Maria, and the teacher kept giving the whole spiel about dropping out and to think of the future, etc.
About 10 minutes into the conversation, the frustrated teacher wants me to ask the mother why on earth we can’t talk to Maria, at which the mother breaks down crying and says that she died a week before from a long illness and that’s why she had dropped out. We were stunned.
Then comes the worst and most awkward maybe 5 minutes of our lives, between apologies and condolences. Needless to say, we didn’t go to any other houses that day. By the way, turns out the school was aware of the kid’s passing but had forgotten to take her off of the list. Reddit user: Butwhydoyouthinkthat
Your Son Is Being Expelled
I once had to do a bit of translating at school from German to Persian. I had to tell a refugee mother how her son was getting expelled because his grades were bad and he wasn’t getting along very well in class. It was very uncomfortable, and I almost teared up when I saw how tired she looked all of a sudden.
It was like she had a very bad dream only to realize it wasn’t a dream. She wasn’t angry, just very, very exhausted. I felt so sorry. I practiced German with her son to try to improve his grades, but that wasn’t enough. I think he was transferred to another school in a different district. The principal didn’t tell me what we needed to talk about.
I was shocked to find out during the conversation what was going on. He just told me to have a bit of a chat about grades and classes. I was very unhappy with him and didn’t want to play a bad news puppet. Reddit user: AlexAlexRobin
Translating My Dad’s Bedroom Problems
Ok, so my parents are divorced, and my dad is deaf. He’s not the brightest fellow, so I sort of managed his medical stuff for him when his parents passed away. Now typically I’d book a sign language interpreter for medical appointments so I can just take notes and ask questions, but this time I didn’t bother; I figured I could just interpret.
Now dad had a new girlfriend at the time, and I had the joy of interpreting my father’s struggles in the bedroom, particularly with erectile dysfunction. See, his new girlfriend, who was 10 years younger, was looking for more frequent performances than dad could muster. And they wanted to get a doctor’s opinion.
So we got in-depth about how frequently was appropriate for a man in his late 50s and then had to discuss the risks of erections going on too long with Viagra. Yeah…I always book an interpreter now, and no, I never did figure out the correct sign for erection. Reddit user: smittyleafs
Not a Happy Announcement
I was a Spanish medical translator for a while, and there were some pretty bad ones, but one really stands out above the rest. Now, I typically know nothing about the patient, and I’m only there to translate what the nurse says, so when the nurse said, “You’re pregnant!” I gave a huge smile and went, “Estas embarazada!”
The patient stared in shock for a second and then burst into tears. The nurse stammered a bit and then went, “No bueno…?” The news we had to give was bad enough, but the fact that I thought it was supposed to be a happy announcement made it 10x more cringe. Reddit user: VampireFaun
Awkward Personal Questions
I went on a study tour with a group of people from my university together with folks from a Japanese university. We were all chilling in someone’s hotel room one night when someone had the bright idea to play truth or dare. As the only one who spoke both English and Japanese, it was my job to translate the questions/dares between the languages.
All the Japanese guys wanted to ask the girls were things like “Who was the last guy you kissed?” or “Have you ever hooked up with a Japanese guy?” It made things super awkward for them, as it shattered their image of the perfect polite Japanese guy. Reddit user: RingoGaSukiDesu
Escorts and Such
I’m not the translator, but I could feel her embarrassment. I came to work in China a few years ago from the USA and had gone out to dinner with the sales team and manager. The manager and two sales girls were the only people of about 7-8 people who could speak English, and I still had no Chinese language ability.
After the dinner, two of the guys with us were trying to be friendly, so they were trying to invite me to go out with them to continue the night. So to ask, however, they had to have my female manager translate everything to me. She went bright red in the face….
With only a slight delay, she turned to me and told me they wanted to invite me to go get some escorts. In business in China back then, it was extremely common to “grease the wheels,” so to speak, that way. Reddit user: VOIDsama
“Oh My Very Goodness”
I worked in the phone support division of a cell phone company for some years, and for customers who don’t speak English, we have an interpreter service. We basically conference the interpreter into the call and take turns speaking. It makes the call much, much longer, but it gets the job done.
One memorable call had my interpreter very flustered (for reasons unknown at the time), as I had to explain to an Arabic man that he did not have insurance on his last phone and would need to pay full price for a replacement. I remember the interpreter’s anxiousness at translating the rudeness very well.
Interpreter: “The customer say that he… oh… oh he, um… he say that… oh my very goodness. He say, that… he say you a very rude man.” To this day, when I get really beside myself, I’ll mutter, “Oh my very goodness.” Reddit user: withgreatpower
Complications with Grindr
I teach English as a foreign language to adults, so I’ve often had to explain the meaning of awkward things. I teach a very low-level class, and I had a student who used to use Grindr in the lesson all the time. At the end of class, he came up to me with Google Translate on his phone and a puzzled expression on his face.
He held up his phone and said, “Teacher, what this mean?” The phrase he’d translated was “Mate, I’m just here to get laid.” Yeah, a lot of hand gestures went into that explanation. Reddit user: UnconditionalMay
That Was a Bad Nickname
I used to teach English to teens/adults in Seoul. Some students gave themselves English nicknames, but some chose to keep their Korean names. One day, a girl came to me with some distress. She said that some other students were laughing at her and making fun of her.
She wanted me to explain why. It was with some discomfort that I explained what the name “Bo-Na” could be interpreted as in English. She ditched it right away. Reddit user: iheartNS
An Awkward Position
My parents don’t speak English, and I used to go with them to doctor appointments to translate. I was about 19 at the time, and my mom was pregnant. The nurse practitioner told me to ask them when was the last time they had hooked up and then proceeded to tell me to translate various positions they could partake in while my mom was pregnant.
I didn’t want to tell my parents or translate anything, but she kept stressing that it was good for them. I don’t think my parents understood me or wanted to understand what I was trying to tell them. Reddit user: [redacted]
I was working with a group translating transcripts that were going to be used in a legal case, and the speakers were using really filthy, really creative curse words. We all had to discuss frequently, either to figure out what they meant or the best way to say it in English.
So, there we all are in a law office, in our suits and ties, deciding whether it should be “rip his butt up and drag him home” or “plow his butt and drag him home.” The subject matter was financial; they just enjoyed a colorful metaphor, those guys. Reddit user: Allofthe7things
What Services Do You Offer?
In 2016, I was working in this really swanky hotel in Venezuela when the Non-Aligned Movement summit happened. Being one of the few people that could speak English at the front desk, I had most of the interactions with the people from the delegations; it was really cool to be so useful.
Most of them had their own interpreters, but during the night audit shifts, I had a lot of delegates from China, North Korea, and several countries from the Middle East come to the front desk to ask about escorts, how much they charged, and what services they provided. I was shocked every time someone came down to ask.
We were one of the fancy hotels on the island, and they were upset we didn’t have a list of escorts ready to serve. Apparently, the most used service during the summit was male escorts according to other FDAs I knew from other hotels. Reddit user: Mantuko
Translating a Fight
I was translating during a divorce trial. You have to swear that you’re translating to the best of your ability, just like a witness swears that they’re telling the truth. No sweat. You’re pretty much a machine, you just translate whatever they say so the judge, clerk, attorneys, and husband and wife hear what’s being said.
Well, at one point, the accusation comes out that he was sleeping around. Well, the husband loses it and starts cursing up a storm, calling her a hooker, etc. I just translated what he said the best I could. Eyebrows were raised, and I just shrugged my shoulders. Just doing my job.
The judge reprimanded him (the wife was testifying at the time), and the guy yelled back at me asking what I said. The judge was cool and winked at me. It was awkward. But he did tell me afterward that I did a great job. Reddit user: me_elmo
Word for Word
My mom is a sign language interpreter. And she’s the best sweet as pie mom you can imagine. I’ve never seen her take a single sip of alcohol (I’m 30), and she says things like oh darn and son of a gun. But then she told me about one time interpreting for the psych ward at a hospital.
The deaf patient was throwing chairs at the doctor and signing every obscenity you can think of and many that don’t even have an actual sign to them. And, as an interpreter should, my American sweet as pie mommy had to aggressively curse the doctor out word for word. It was the best thing I could ever picture. Reddit user: BambiRock
You’re Going Home
The most uncomfortable conversation I’ve had to interpret was a worker getting fired for failing a specific test and being told she was getting sent back home from this overseas project (I believe she was from some tiny village in Asia) and would lose her job (and walk away with no recommendation).
She was in tears and trying to justify it by telling the doctor all her family issues, but she worked in a field with zero tolerance and was sent back the next day. It was really sad. Reddit user: Sonirel
Curses and Stuff
My wife was taking a deposition that was being interpreted from Creole to English. At some point, she caught the deponent in a lie and proved her defense of fraud. The deponent stood up and slammed her fists on the table and started screaming in Creole. And no one really knew what was being said.
My wife demanded that the interpreter translate every word of what she said. The interpreter refused to do so, as the deponent was apparently placing a voodoo curse on my wife. Reddit user: KennethPowersIII
The Words Were Mine
Many years ago, an American participant in an international program that I was running in a Hispanic country died suddenly of a heart attack. His wife was present when it happened. While we were waiting for the coroner’s van, I thought of calling the local priest, since I knew both the deceased and his wife were Catholics.
When the priest showed up, he turned out to be the most inappropriate, awkward, and unconcerned person I have ever seen in such a situation. He was talking to the wife with a total lack of empathy or interest about her feelings. I was translating for him, and I had to make up the whole translation because I was so ashamed.
He would say things like, “I was in the middle of my lunch when you called me!” And I would translate, “I could not wait to come comfort you when I heard of this tragedy.” The whole thing was so sad. The wife was very appreciative that I had called the priest, but all the comfort words were mine. Reddit user: santipur
How to Raise a Child
I used to translate in college for extra money, and one couple who hired me was trying to complete an adoption application. They kept asking me how I would answer the questions: questions about how they would raise the child, thoughts on school activities, amounts of tv allowed, etc.
Things I had no idea how to answer. I ended up translating all the questions in writing and telling them to give me a call if they needed more help. I didn’t hear from them again. If I remember, it was grandparents trying to adopt their daughter’s child. Reddit user: Kaelaface
Sugar and Sewer
When I studied abroad, my roommate (another American) didn’t speak Spanish very well, and our host mom only knew a handful of words in English. I tended to be the dinner table interpreter. One day, our host mom was listing off the words she knew in English. One of them was “sugar.”
Being an elderly woman who had never really spoken anything but Spanish, her pronunciation wasn’t perfect but understandable. My roommate started laughing and told me it sounded like she was saying “sewer.” My host mom asked me what she said. I had to translate that and see the look of sadness on my host mom’s face.
She was so proud of her English words, and that roommate made her feel insecure. It still makes me angry thinking about it. Reddit user: sarah_the_intern
It’s Me or Divorce
It was a while ago, so I don’t remember the full details, but I once translated a message from a new husband to his wife threatening her with divorce if she didn’t go on a cruise with him to have, err…special relations with a masseuse he hired for the occasion.
He said he’d interpret it as a “betrayal” of his love for her. Yeah, I really hope she found her way out of that one. It sounded like he had a lot of money and was holding it over her head. Reddit user: Another-Story
Asking Important Questions
I was a Russian translator for a refugee clinic while studying the language at college. It was ok because most of the time, I just helped make doctor appointments or work interviews or whatever…pretty basic stuff I could handle. Then one day, I had to take a couple to the courthouse to get a marriage license.
I made it through translating pretty smoothly, then the guy at the courthouse asked if either person had any illnesses, meaning long-term infectious type things. I only knew how to say sickness in terms of short-term colds OR how to say specific illnesses. And I was pretty scared because who even asks that….
But I went ahead and asked the husband-to-be if he was sick…“you know, like AIDS or something.” Ooo boy, the husband-to-be was very confused and offended. We got through it, and they got their marriage license. Reddit user: konfetkak
Her Cheating Husband
This wasn’t me but my French teacher in high school. Before she became a teacher, she worked as a translator for a law firm in Quebec. The firm often had clients who didn’t speak French, and so she basically worked from home on the phone translating for lawyers and their clients.
She told us this one story of a widow who had just lost her husband and needed to talk to the lawyers to discuss his will. Come to find out the husband didn’t leave her anything, but instead left everything to his name to another woman he was having an affair with.
And yes, my teacher had to inform that poor lady that her cheating husband left her nothing. Reddit user: futureresident40
You’re Having a Stroke
I once had to interpret between a woman having a stroke and a first aider (NOT as a professional interpreter, just happened to be there and spoke her language). I did okay at getting her info and keeping her calm waiting for the ambulance, but then something happened….
The paramedics wanted me to tell her that she was probably having a stroke, and I couldn’t remember the word…so I said she was having a brain attack. Reddit user: [redacted]
No Butt Talk Here
I used to work at a backpacker hostel in a European country, and the hostel owner wanted me to tell three college-aged girls that they had nice butts. They’re looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to translate, and he’s looking at me with a big grin giving me the “go on, tell them” hand wave.
I ended up telling them he said they looked pretty, so they were thankful, and he happily went away thinking that they were pleased to learn they had big butts. Reddit user: unknowntroubleVI
Fathers and Grandfathers
I used to volunteer with Flying Samaritans, which is a group of American doctors that travel to Baja California (in Mexico) to help people in remote rural towns that are far away from hospitals. This one time, one of the doctors who spoke some Spanish called me because she was having trouble understanding one of the locals.
She wanted to know who the father of the kid was and thought the mother said that the father was her father. So, I asked the lady and had to explain that she understood correctly, the father was the grandfather as well. Reddit user: DosExMaquina
This is not my story, but I heard it from a fellow interpreter in Afghanistan. This interpreter walks with an American officer into a local Afghan army hospital to show sympathy and ask about the patients’ health. Everything goes well until they come across a guy lying in bed looking weak but with no obvious war wounds.
So the American officer asks his interpreter to ask the patient what’s wrong with him. The interpreter asks, and the patient tells him he has diarrhea. The interpreter doesn’t know the word (diarrhea) in English. He improvises, “Sir, his poop is going like water.” Reddit user: faridhab
Monks and Monkeys
When I was 16, a Tibetan monk came to our city in Brazil to do some lectures on Buddhism. My aunt invited him to her house and asked me to be the translator. He had a very weird accent, and I wasn’t as fluent in English as she probably thought I was, but I agreed anyway because I thought it would be cool.
He goes on telling this story about how some monkeys decided to go on a hunger strike and that these monkeys stayed without eating and speaking for more than three months. I was quite curious to know how monkeys could be so clever to understand the concept of a strike and how were they being monitored to ensure that they were actually doing the strike.
It took me way too much time to finally understand that Tibetan monkeys were not monkeys but monks. By then, I had told a bunch of people (around 20) a story about super clever and empathetic Tibetan monkeys that looked like the beginning of Planet of the Apes. Reddit user: goodwithblahs
Translating the Love and Hate
I’m Mexican, and I have a lot of German relatives. Some years ago, we spent a summer in Colombia. None of them knew Spanish, and my cousin wanted to talk to a girl in a restaurant. I spent hours literally exchanging compliments between the two of them, and one thing led to another, and they started kissing.
But then they started to fight, so I had to translate that too. I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life; slurs are so different in the two languages, and then I just left them alone because they started kissing again and I honestly wasn’t having it. Reddit user: Moiramora29
Not me, but my wife was a Mandarin-English medical interpreter in the US. One patient was at a follow-up with an oncologist regarding treatment options for a very late cancer diagnosis. The woman had months to live, and they were going to discuss how to end things on her terms.
As it turns out, the previous interpreter who worked with this woman failed to mention the diagnosis to my wife; she was completely unaware going into this appointment that she had cancer at all. Reddit user: Antofuzz
Do You Know Who He Is?
I was an interpreter for a foreign businessman who had a huge ego. We had to change flights because of a business meeting change. The businessman/me (translating): “We need to change these four tickets to a later flight.” To which the associate responded, “No problem.” She went on to say that it would be a $100 charge for each ticket changed.
I translated that for my boss. His response: “Ask her if she knows who she’s talking to.” I asked the agent if she knew who she was talking to. Her response: “No.” I told him: “No, she doesn’t.” His response: “OK” and then he handed me a credit card to pay a $400 fee. Reddit user: aaraujo666
To Wear or Not to Wear the Dress
Once, while taking some American friends through a tourist market in China, a Chinese friend of mine suggested to an American girl accompanying us that she should purchase a Chinese dress because it would look pretty on her. She said she couldn’t even consider it, because she didn’t want to engage in cultural appropriation.
What followed was five very awkward minutes of me trying to explain to him through translating and contextualizing the concept of “cultural appropriation” (which he completely missed). My friend kept insisting, “Why on earth would I think it’s disrespectful for her to wear a dress from my country?” Facepalm.
The final result was the American girl being upset with me for misrepresenting cultural appropriation and the Chinese guy being upset with her for allowing her “American nonsense” to color the way she viewed the dress. Reddit user: yinshi-inthe-meanshi
Fraud and Made-Up Conversations
I worked as a Czech/Slovak translator and customer service rep for two years, and the most awkward thing by far was calling up customers that had committed fraud and having to interpret back and forth between angry people calling the other one a liar. It was pretty funny when I hung up, though.
Oh, and that one time a guy was trying to hit on the girl I was interpreting for in a VERY forward way. I just made up my own conversation between them. Reddit user: IMJONEZZ
That Healthcare Sucks
I was called in at 2 am to tell a family that their husband/father passed away from a heart attack. All I remember is his wife saying, “We should’ve gone to the doctor earlier when he was having chest pains. We didn’t have insurance, so he told us the pain was nothing and that it’d go away so that we wouldn’t waste money on hospital bills.”
After this incident, it hit home how terrible the American health insurance system is and that no one should have to delay a doctor’s visit because of financial worry. He left behind his wife and two sons in high school. Reddit user: alephe
Someone Was Lying
My girlfriend is a Mandarin/English translator. She had to go to the hospital once to talk to a man who had cancer. His daughter could speak Chinese and English, but the doctors eventually figured out that she was lying to her dad about everything because she couldn’t cope.
So my girlfriend basically had to sit there and inform a man that he had terminal cancer and wasn’t going to live for much longer at all. It was weeks to months? Then she had to explain to him that his daughter had misled him for quite a long time that he was going to recover as part of her own delusional defense mechanism. Reddit user: BlockedByBeliefs
I used to work for a Japanese hay importer. In my first week on the job, we had some suppliers come in to check some bales that my company kept getting complaints from customers on. My coworker who used to work on his dad’s farm looked at the stuff with them, and everyone agreed that there wasn’t really anything wrong with it.
The CEO came to the meeting after we checked the hay. The supplier told me to tell the CEO that he wasn’t going to pay any claims and that the CEO could eat the hay himself or shove it up where the sun doesn’t shine. I stood there frozen for ten seconds.
I translated it as nicely as I could before getting chewed out for not just translating it directly, as it turned out that the CEO and supplier were friends and were always very direct in how they communicated with each other. Reddit user: Chataro
Business in the Water
I’m a translator and interpreter in a recycling company that sells material to Europe, and we had some clients come to see our industrial plant. I was pretty excited about it all until my boss talked about a “hot water spa” where he wanted to take the clients. Um, excuse me?
I didn’t have a swimsuit packed and hoped it wouldn’t be necessary for me to jump in the water…but it was. My boss lent me some swimming trunks (he’s 60 something, so they were huge). I had to hop around in warm water with a ton of towels on, trying to stay afloat. Reddit user: Axolotegirl
You’re Not Dying
I once had to go to an ER because my dad’s friend’s wife had something going on. The doc came in and saw that I was able to translate, so he asked me to go and help translate for another patient. She was an 18-year-old girl and I was like 15 at the time, so I had to ask typical woman questions.
I helped explain what was wrong (nothing serious); it took about 15 minutes total. Once I got back, it took almost an hour to convince my dad’s friend’s wife that she wasn’t dying and that the doctor didn’t tell me the bad news in private and split, leaving me to break the bad news.
It wasn’t fun; she was in tears thinking that she was going to die the entire time I was away. I was more than happy when it was time to leave. Reddit user: [redacted]