I have always been a big fan of the TV show “Modern Family.” It gives a voice to many generations and many different walks of life. It’s funny while vulnerable, honest and very human. The writers and actors make it very easy to relate to the characters. However, there are a few characters that I have found it harder to relate to, one of which is Gloria. I have always had a deep appreciation for her part on the show. For those that are unfamiliar, Gloria is a young Colombian woman married to the grandfather of the show. Her character is consistently used for jokes on mistranslations or misuses of American slang.
Until this semester, I had never experienced the feeling of having the funny accent in a foreign land. I had never felt like Gloria. So, while she was always someone I enjoyed on the show, I didn’t connect as much with her character until now. There is one particular instance in the show that has come back to me a couple times since I’ve been studying here.
“Do you know how smart I am in Spanish?”
Taken literally, my identification with this quote is dismal because I speak barely any Spanish and would be considered extremely stupid in that language. But really, I have never had a better understanding of Gloria until I spent time in another country. It is a truly humbling experience to be at a lower language level than my professors, peers, and friends.
This past weekend, I traveled to Paris to meet up with an aunt, uncle, and cousins who happened to be traveling to France while I am here! Since their French was mostly from high school (a couple decades ago) or Duolingo (the week before they left the States), I acted as a translator/spokeswoman during much of the time I was with them. However, I give them credit for speaking and understanding whatever French they could. They also recognized the difficulty of not knowing how to convey what you mean.
While walking through a park, we came upon a group of old Italian men playing pétanque, which is the French equivalent of bocce ball. As tame as this group probably sounds, it was a pretty intense game. These guys were knocking the closest ball out of the way with their throw, there were curveballs in the mix, all of it, so let’s just say we were enjoying ourselves as their audience. We were maintaining a respectful amount of noise during the game. But then, the game ended with a winning curveball and they all took out their magnets attached to strings to pick up the heavy metal balls. That right there is the moment when we all lost our minds. My uncle was particularly excited about this simple, but smart apparatus. He pointed at the string and the Italian man holding it sort of smiled at him as if to say “Cool, right?” My uncle, however, did not keep his cool and, out of excitement, blurted out, “Je m’appelle!” This translates to “My name is.” It was clear that the Italian was really just amused, and so this became a catchphrase that we used throughout the weekend when we didn’t know what else to say.
Later that day, I asked my uncle what he was really trying to say, because most likely “My name is” wasn’t what he was trying to translate in his head. His answer to this question is almost better than what he said in the first place. “I was going to say, ‘Je t’aime’ because I wanted to tell him how much I liked his magnet.” Personally, I don’t think telling a stranger that you love him is much better than just saying “My name is” so I think my uncle inadvertently went with the less forward option. This is probably for the best, but either way, this is a mistranslation story I will not forget.
Since January, I have experienced what it is like to be a foreigner, but one that still speaks the native language. After this weekend visit, I have seen what it is like to be a non-French speaker in France. It has given me an even bigger appreciation for those who don’t speak my language perfectly, but who try. So thank you, Gloria, for giving that voice to an assumedly larger audience than this blog post will reach.