When Translation Surprises you

And sounds like something a cartoon character would do

I’ve reached a point when my inability to navigate Portuguese life’s most basic demands embarrasses me.

Coming off a late night flight after weeks of intense family stress, I’m pretty sure I shed some neurons between Paris and Lisbon. The likelihood I may have left my whole brain behind is increasing with every minute I spend staring at this locked door.

Although I understand the instructions on how to open the door to the letter, they make no sense to me.

Or indeed to the door that will not yield, regardless of how gentle or how rough my ministrations.

“Stretch the key,” the host emailed me before I arrived.

I am flummoxed by this so I begin to wonder whether the Portuguese side of my brain has shut down, turning to the internet to double-check translation.

Nope. Stretch the key it is. Then again, it is made of a sturdy combination of nickel, silver, and brass. My name is not Uri Geller. I cannot bend the key with my mind.

Am I having a Matrix moment?

What if it’s not the key that needs stretching but my psyche?

As Portuguese is full of colorful expressions, I start wondering whether this might be a new one. For example, “to be of reversed lamps at someone” (estar de candeias às avessas com alguém) means to be angry at them. It stands to reason stretch the key could mean be forceful so I try.

Insert, rattle, repeat.

Whisper “Open Sesame!” very gently, on the off chance.

No joy.

I see a hipster walking into the building so I greet him with a smile. “Boa noite!”, I exclaim as he walks right by me and up the stairs. Not only does he not see me, but he doesn’t hear me either. I belatedly notice his headphones, such an intrinsic part of the international 21st century human uniform my eyes stopped picking out ear appendages as an accessory a long time ago. Wherever you go these days, humans are wont to talk to themselves while wearing strange contraptions on either side of their head.

This is who many of us are and this is what many of us look like when out in public.

Even though I have no idea how to stretch the key, I will myself to embrace the illusion I am in complete control of the situation and expand my thought process.

Because I cannot connect with the door, the obvious solution is to email my host again even though it’s 11:30PM by now and I’m loath to do it.

Suddenly, my savior walks down the stairs bearing boxes of cakes. He has nothing in his ears. This is my chance so I take it, apologizing for my own silliness and asking him for a little help — uma ajudinha — in my best anglo-Azorean accent.

He puts the cake boxes down, grabs the key, and immediately unlocks the door with a flourish and smile.

“I don’t understand what stretch the key means,” I confess, sheepishly.

“They’re extendable keys,” he shows me.

“Porra!”, I exclaim and he falls about laughing as it is about the most Portuguese thing you can say. And not something you expect to come out of the mouth of someone as obviously foreign as me.

As I thank him, I note with delight my linguistic reflexes still work. “You’re welcome!” he says as he pats me on the back, still visibly amused.

For the next hour, I can’t stop giggling either.

In the meantime, I notice my host has sent me picture instructions after I told her I had no idea what stretching the key meant.

It turns out it meant just that.

I spent the rest of the week with a clunky extra long key in my pocket for fear of never being able to extend it again.

Every time the key pokes me in the thigh, it reminds me that no matter how fluent one might be, some cultural references can only be understood through experience.

If language is the key to another culture, its meaning often needs stretching in unfamiliar ways only a native speaker instinctively knows.

I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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