I was working as a driver for the Red Cross with a Catalan girl and an affable Italian volunteer. Suddenly the Italian man’s parents phoned up and he started chatting in his mother tongue. As a future translator, I listened carefully to his conversation until he said, ‘Sì, sono in ambulanza con Montse e Gerard, l’autista’.
‘What ? An autist? Why does he say I’m autistic,’ I thought, ‘What did I do? And Alessandro seems so friendly…’
I had always thought until then that I was rather sociable so when he hung up I asked him why he thought I was an autistic. He looked at me somewhat bemused, smiled and said, ‘you’re mistaken, ‘autista’ means ‘driver’! In Italian ‘autistic’ translates as ‘autistico’!’
I then understood there were no autistic drivers around and Alessandro was not as coarse as I had imagined. I think this misunderstanding is also possible between Italian and French 'autiste' and British ‘autist’.