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 game board? 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 complete? 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.

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