Community Engagement Phrases That are Funny in Other Languages


A picture of a pink jacket with English text translated from Chinese. Picture taken in Taiwan by Erin Okuno

A friend said we needed a funny blog post. This week we’ll poke fun at the English language and the privileged space English has in our lives. One of my resolutions for 2017 was to spend less time in English only spaces. I still spend about 98-percent of my life in English speaking spaces, but that other 2-percent is memorable.

This blog post is making fun of English phrases you may hear or read while doing community engagement. Many of these phrases or words are really hard to explain or translate to a non- or limited-English speaking/literate people. As an example a few weeks ago I was waiting for my kid’s soccer practice to end, imagine October on a cold night watching little kids running in a scrum and keep missing the ball. Another parent who I know a little is Chinese speaking and she stopped me to ask what does light dinner mean. She was translating an English flier into Chinese but didn’t know what light dinner meant. I tried to explain it meant appetizers, but she didn’t know the word appetizer and Google translate wasn’t helping. I tried saying dim sum like food, thinking that the Chinese reference might help, but that confused her more. Pupus was out of the question. I think in the end we settled on just the word dinner.

Here are a list of phrases and words, crowdsourced from my Facebook friends, that don’t translate well from English into most languages. Some would argue they hardly make sense in English, so why would they make sense in any other language.

Community Engagement – You want to marry the community?

Light Dinner – You want me to eat a light bulb?

Heavy appetizer – I can’t even begin to fathom how to describe this to a non-English speaker. Appetizers are tiny pieces of food, but it must be heavy too?

Task force – Using brunt force to complete our tasks is acceptable. People talking at a nonprofit meeting can get violent at times.

Executive Director – My colleague said she couldn’t explain my position title to her Chinese speaking mother. I was translated into President.

Intersectionality – Like a traffic intersection you drive through? And it isn’t to talk about your intersections of identities, watch the video in the link if you’re confused.

Lunch and learn – I’m expected to learn about your lunch? Wait, I have to bring a paper brown bag to this lunch too?

That’s a Very Good Point (when pointing out the obvious that the room is filled with all white people) – Explaining this nuance through an interpreter sounds like this “All of the people who are nodding are white people. They now understand they are white and need more ideas from people of color.”

Committee – I think the translation of a committee into any is “where good ideas go to die.” My friend Bao shared the Vietnamese word for committee which is “ủy ban.” She also said the cultural nuance is important because ủy ban is a communist-invented word and many Vietnamese immigrants do not like the word.

Authentic engagement – We want real engagement, not fake engagement? Engagement as in you want to marry me? Well, at least this is authentic engagement and not community engagement where you wanted to marry everyone.

Bring your whole self to the conversation. — Sooo, not just my side eye?  (h/t Kristin W.)

Lean in – I should put my head in the middle of the meeting? I need to assume a pose like a skier? Wait, I’m from a warm climate and barely know what skiing is like. Can I just sit down or stand up?

Be present. – I should bring a present, like a gift?

Listening tour – You’re going around listening to people, like people who are band groupies listening to music?

Potluck – My cooking pot will bring you luck? Smoking pot might bring you more luck, but that isn’t legal in every state so it definitely won’t bring you luck if you land in jail.

I want to raise up your voice – You want me to speak in a higher octave?

Let’s put that in the parking lot – We should walk outside and put this into a parking lot and then drive away?

Limited childcare available – So I should limit how many children I bring? Just some childcare is available, so I have to pick them up early?

Skin in the game – You want me to cut myself and leave my skin on a gameboard? Barbaric!

Finally, let’s try to interpret the phrase Racial Equity – Race, not a running race, but people race. Race as in where people are from. But not really because some people are born in America but still considered a certain race (don’t confuse nationality with race). Equity – not financial equity, but how much people need to be complete? People aren’t compete? This is sounding a lot like when you tried to explain limited childcare to me. I think I’ll just stay home and take a nap.

When working with non- or limited-English speaking communities it is best to say what you mean. Skip the code switching, the talking in circles, and break down your concept into terms into words that make sense. Such as instead of saying “lean in,” say “I want you to pay attention even if the other person pisses you off. Don’t leave or stop listening.”

Some other tips for working with interpreters:

  • Interpretation vs. Translation – quick definition is interpretation is verbal, translation is written.
  • Interpretation requires quick thinking and processing. The interpreter often has to listen, process, and translate simultaneously. They often must also have to communicate in two languages and both directions, e.g. English to ASL and ASL to English, Spanish to Chinese and Chinese to Spanish, etc.
  • Translation is written and requires sophisticated grasp of written language and cultural written nuances.
  • If an interpreter is being used it is helpful for them if you can do the following:
    • Pay them for their professional skills
    • Speak at a normal or slower pace
    • Pause to allow them to think, process, and speak – even when using simultaneous translation (i.e. translations where people are listening in on headsets, or the interpreter is speaking at the same time as the speaker)
    • Be aware of background noise and work to limit it
    • One speaker at a time, don’t speak over other people too
    • If using simultaneous interpretation test your equipment ahead of time and bring extra headsets and extra batteries
    • If the meeting is long, hire more than one interpreter so they can trade off. ASL interpreters often work in pairs, we should work to do this for other languages as well.

Posted by Erin Okuno. Thank you to friends who contributed to this blog post.

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

What it means to be Asian American, on the mainland

I’m out of topics to blog about this week and I’m too lazy to think hard about race, equity, and policy stuff. Instead, I’ll write about what I know well, what it means to be Asian American. This is a privilege of the blog, controlling the content and unfairly using the pulpit to focus and aggrandize me, I promise not to make this a regular thing.

Asian first or Japanese first?

2016-07-16 16.49.41

My kid wearing my kimono looking at ikebana.

I’m Asian but haven’t always thought of myself as Asian. I was raised in Hawaii where Asians are everywhere. Hawaii’s Governor George Ariyoshi was a Japanese American governor during my keiki time (Hawaiian word for child). He was the first Governor of Asian ancestry to ascend to governorship in the county, he broke the bamboo ceiling. More recently Hawaii Governor David Ige is the first Okinawan American governor in the nation. This is what I grew up with – seeing Japanese and Asian Americans and Asian immigrants around me.

Growing up in Hawaii I didn’t see myself as Asian, I was seen by my familial ethnicity of Japanese first, and a bit of Okinawan. It was great, I was secure in my ethnic identity. Teachers looked like me, my neighbors and friends were diverse, going to the store we didn’t need to shop at the Asian food store or aisles to find nori, Okinawan sweet/purple potatoes, or mochiko. Visiting my grandparents, we got our doses of Japanese and Okinawan culture and sprinklings of language. One grandma played old school tinny Japanese records and I think my first kid size kimono was a gift from her. My other grandma taught me how to be Japanese and Okinawan through feeding people. Food was her love language, “You hungry? Eat more.” Through her I saw what it meant to be in a Japanese community – you feed each other, literally and figuratively, the aunties and cousins would be over, and the food would spill out of the kitchen and be present whenever people were around.

Ohhh, now I’m Asian

I moved to Seattle for college and it was in college I figured out “Ohhhhhh, I’m now Asian – not Japanese – Asian.” On the mainland, what Hawaii people call the continental United States, label me first as an Asian, and maybe get around to understanding my ethnicity and culture. Being on the mainland I learned as Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) we have to fight to be seen in a way I didn’t feel like I had to Hawaii. Hawaii’s demographics and culture are more centered towards the API experience and the population density allowed us to be seen differently than in the continental US.

Growing up in a state that was “majority-minority,” a term that is now outdated and pejorative but is descriptive of the time, gave me a grounding as an Asian American. I didn’t walk into a room and scan the room to see if there were other Asians because there almost always were other Asians. This is a habit I learned when I started working on the mainland, I scan the room and count to see if there are other people of color. Being part of the majority meant I had safety in numbers, my identity wasn’t unusual in a space like it is now, being somewhere I wasn’t the exception to the rule, and it also meant I was accountable to others who knew how to hold me accountable in cultural ways, not just traditional accountability.

As an Asian American in Seattle, I can see how growing up in Hawaii gave me a different lens to the API and poc experience. In some ways growing up in the majority means I expect things that others may not feel I have the right to expect. Such as I expect APIs and POCs in leadership roles. I expect the Asian experience to be understood as nuanced not as a monolithic group. I expect our identity as APIs and pocs to matter and to be seen as both, not forced to choose whether I am Asian, Japanese, or poc. When I walk into a meeting I expect to be taken seriously and be given the benefit of the doubt because of who I am, not have to prove I belong there. Some people read this as arrogance at worst and self-assuredness at its best, I think it is somewhere between both, and apologetically I don’t know how to think otherwise.

At times systems and institutions don’t know what to do with Asians. I know I have access and privileges because I’m a poc that can code-switch. Growing up in the majority taught me how to navigate in dominant culture – I can speak up, I can bridge communities and institutions, and I work to understand poc cultures. That said at times systems and institutions don’t know what to do with Asians (broadly speaking, not just me), they want to consider us white believing we’ve transcended racism, but if you talk to many Asians we tell a different story. I do my best to own the privileges Asianess has afforded me and my family, but being an Asian with many privileges doesn’t mean I’m white. I can’t walk into a room and trust I will be in the majority, I can’t trust systems to recognize the migration stories, languages and cultures embedded into the API experience, and I know if I step out of the bubble that I created for myself surrounded by strong poc leaders, I am more of the exception than the norm.

API stories and leadership matters. APIs are a rich race group with over 40 unique ethnic groups. Our languages, histories, cultures, and migration stories are different. My API experience is different than others in my extended family and friend network. Heidi and Jondou, two close colleagues who contribute to this blog, are both Asians and their stories are different than mine, yet many look at us as Asians first and assume we are the same.

Some readings to learn more:

Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar – start your Friday with a little fakequity.