When teaching English in a foreign country, you gain a new and profound appreciation for the minutiae of communicating across languages. You soon discover that the cultural context adds yet another layer of complexity and so there are limitless opportunities for misunderstandings that transcend mere differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.
For example, there is a Roman word (which has long been used throughout Italy) that even many of us Americans know: Vaffanculo. We could debate the subtle variations of a direct translation, but it is essentially equivalent to the imperative phrase, “f*ck off!” in English.
Now, I don’t know about the rest of you English speakers, but to this American, there really isn’t any sweet, gentle way to spin this expression. It is always an insult at best; and at worst, an invitation to a physical conflict.
Yet, it seems that in the Roman dialect, there can actually be an affectionate way to invoke this colorful invective. Or so said my Italian girlfriend. She had given me the “vaffanculo” on several occasions and I had always laughed it off. “When in Rome,” and all that. Besides, expletives in a foreign language don’t really touch us viscerally—it’s more like being privy to an inside joke. And in fact I felt almost pleased with myself to be bantering in her native tongue. So that was fine.
But then she made the mistake of assuming that the same phrase, translated into my language, would produce the same jovial reaction from me. One day while enjoying a nice conversation and some playful back-and-forth teasing, she told me to “f*ck off.” Well, I wasn’t really prepared for this and I must admit that my reaction was anything but jovial. The prolonged silence echoed throughout the apartment and it took several minutes for me to regain my composure.
Of course we laugh about it now and have even used the incident as a reference point in subsequent linguistic mix-ups. But it highlights the fact that language goes beyond the meaning of the words–cultural differences must always be taken into consideration.
Well, that’s my take on it anyway. And if you don’t like it…vaffanculo!!! (Of course I mean that in the friendliest possible way).