“Untranslatable Spanish Concepts”

Once again the internet is a source of frustrating linguistic nonsense. On this occasion it is the origin of that frustration that intensifies the awkwardness of the situation.

Living Language has stepped into an area that so many venture into without truly understanding what is happening.

I had a lot of fun writing this post. There are so many Spanish cultural concepts that are difficult to translate into another language, and there’s a sweetness in thinking about them. When you live abroad, you develop a sort of affection for all things from your home country, and when you talk about them, you get this silly smile on your face, and all of your critical thinking evaporates, and you are able to forgive “everything”.

This is yet another example of someone misusing, or at the very least, misunderstanding the term “translate”. Of course, certain cultural and social concepts exist that do not have a corresponding word (lexeme/lexical unit/morpheme) in another language. That has very little to do with that concept being “translatable”. Everything is translatable. What’s more, the words that make up a concept often have one-to-one corresponding words in another language that give massive clues to what a concept might mean.

Let’s look at the entries in this post, what he has for meaning, and how the words are defined on an easily accessible site.

MERENDAR

This means to eat around 5:00 pm; between lunch (2:00 pm) and dinner (9:00 pm). The traditional ingredients of this meal, la merienda, vary across age groups. Children and teenagers eat a bocadillo (sandwich made with Spanish bread) with cold cuts, tuna fish or Nocilla, our version of Nutella. Grown-ups tend to have a café con leche and a cruasán (croissant), madalena (little muffin) or some other pastry.

Wiktionary has: merendar – to have a snack

QUEDARSE DE RODRÍGUEZ

“Un rodríguez” (a very common last name) is a married man that, when summer comes, stays in the city while his wife and children go to their rented vacation home at the beach. Thanks to this practice, children and wife can spend two months at the beach instead of just the one month that the father also goes on vacation. Los rodríguez travel to the beach on the weekends and, presumably, return happily to the city on Sunday night.

Granted, this one is a bit of a stretch, but;

Wiktionary has: quedarse – to stay, remain

HACER PUENTE

The first thing Spaniards look for in their work calendars are los puentes (the bridges). These are mini vacation periods that occur when two national or regional holidays are separated by only one day, or when a holiday is separated from the weekend by one day. The bridge is thus “built” across the vacations or the vacations and the weekend making one longer vacation. Some puentes have become as traditional as the holidays they combine; for example El puente de la Inmaculada that makes December 7th a holiday by bringing together El día de la Constitución, Constitution Day, (December 6th) and El día de la Inmaculada, Immanculate Conception Day, (December 8th).

Wiktionary has: hacer – to do; make | puente – 1. bridge 2. a long weekend

HACER BOTELLÓN

Some fifteen years ago college students in Spain developed a cheap way of consuming alcohol: They decided to buy it in supermarkets and drink it outside before going to the clubs. The youth started gathering in parking lots with their cars and their friends. This practice spread out quickly and moved to city parks and squares, which are now fixed destinations for botellón every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. As you can imagine, neighbors love it.

Wiktionary has: hacer – to do; make | botellón – street binge drinking

So, as you can see, there is no difficulty in “translating” anything. In fact, there are corresponding concepts in English that are readily accessible on the web. Whether this type of assertion is meant to be sentimental, silly, or based on ignorance of how language works is actually quite irrelevant. The persistence of the claims that something is “untranslatable” borders on maddening.

The lack of a one-to-one correspondence in lexica is not the same as a concept or idea lacking a meaning which can be expressed just as easily in another language.

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2 thoughts on ““Untranslatable Spanish Concepts”

  1. I think the main culprit behind this thinking is an undue focus on “words” as what language is all about. We linguists tend to focus away from the “word,” either on smaller concepts (phoneme, feature, root) or larger concepts (syntactic constituent, intonational phrase). Some concepts (like agreement) are not clearly related to the word: they show relationships between different chunks of material that may be bigger or smaller than “words.” In many theories of syntax, in fact, there are no “words” at all; “words” are defined on a phonological basis. Possibly our writing system biases us to think of language as a matter of “words” and not, say, syllables or utterances.

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  2. Pingback: Untranslatable | Football Bats

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