Have you ever been in a foreign country and quickly whipped out your phone for a translation? Maybe you’ve even spoken into your phone and put it on loudspeaker to do the talking for you. As you can imagine, like the search engine, the translate feature is automatic and takes your input literally. Word for word. For better translations of phrases, I recommend DeepL – they even have a Pro version for translating entire documents or switching between formal and informal language.
But that word for word literal translation can get you in trouble if you’re not careful. I learnt that the hard way back at the beginning of 2020.
In the midst of the first Covid-19 confinement in France I, like a lot of women do at some point in their lives, contracted thrush. Thrush is a yeast infection which can occur for all manner of reasons. For me, it was probably a combination of taking too many baths, wearing tight leggings to work out in and enjoying the lockdown by passing time with my boyfriend the only way we knew how. Also, he was working as a welder and mechanic at the time, so he was almost always dirty.
It was pretty uncomfortable, and I had to do something about it, so I ventured out of our little house in the middle of the Brittany countryside into the big – currently shut – world. The nearest town with a pharmacy was Pleneé-Jugon. It is an exceedingly small town and was barely a 10-minute drive down the road. Sadly, it was actually quite exciting to have a reason to leave the house. At this point it had been a few weeks and I was going nonsensicle. Hence, all the long baths.
I didn’t really need anything from the supermarket but decided to go in anyway and make the most of my big day out. I bought some things so that I could have a go at making pizza dough and a nice bottle of wine for my next bath. Next, the hard part. Explaining my predicament in another language while socially distancing. Covid had really put a halt to the language learning process and I had only been in France for a few months at this point.
Because of Covid you weren’t allowed to go into the pharmacy so there was a long, socially distanced queue that had formed outside it. While I waited, I did a quick google translate for thrush. There were two options:
‘La Grive’ or ‘Muguet’
I didn’t really know what the difference was, but I figured I would try both and hopefully she spoke a little English. Also, I knew how to say ‘vagina’ and ‘infection’ because they are essentially the same in English but with a French accent.
Turns out she didn’t speak any English and as soon as it was my turn I panicked. I hadn’t been speaking French with anyone throughout confinement and the pressure of the queue behind me was too much. I started with,
“Désole. Je suis anglaise. Parlez-vous anglais?”
“Sorry. I’m English. Do you speak English?”
Nope. No English. I was going to have to speak French. It was incredibly embarrassing, but I tried out my google translate words. She blinked at me, confused. I pointed to my crotch and tried each word again with what I hoped was better pronunciation. She was lost. I could see she wanted to help me and asked if it was something to do with my face.
Then I suddenly came to my senses and remembered to say infection and continued to gesture to my groin, the eyes of the people in the queue burning into the back of my head. I was sweating. Thankfully she seemed to understand and went inside to get some medicine. She came back with a few options and slowly talked me through them. I understood enough of what she said to know this was what I needed, and I said I would take both the cream and the pills. Because I wasn’t risking having to go through this again if it didn’t work!
When I got home, I did some proper googling. As I should have done before I excitedly left the house that morning. It turns out that I had been using the word for thrush as in the bird. The other word means lily of the valley, a kind of flower. That poor woman had every right to be confused. That is like someone in the UK pointing to their crotch and saying ‘sparrow’ in a weird French accent!
And that, my friend, is why google translate is never the solution. When it comes to medical words in another language always ask someone who is a native speaker or check the translations on the instructions of a brand that you know. Most medicines have a long pamphlet translated into several different language; I have learnt a lot from them.
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A travel and lifestyle blog. By me, Lydia. I'm based in Brittany, France and I am here to share an honest and informative account of my life here.