Lost in Traducción

I was uncool today.

You see, in protest against the cold I’d bought myself a hot water bottle, and in celebration I texted my friend to tell her about it. I was caught up in the moment and decided to use the Spanish word guaton instead of “water bottle.” My friend was quick to point out that guaton means “fat person.” The word I was looking for was guatero.

This is a guatero
This is a guaton

As most of my readers will know, I am quite a cool guy. Too often, my friends will approach me in the street and say, “Hey Michael, you’re quite a cool guy.”

It happens everywhere: When I’m at parties, when I’m on my way to work, when I’m leaning against other people’s parked motorbikes. However, there is a specific time when I’m decidedly uncool, and that’s when I try speaking Spanish. As a grownup, I realise that the most important detail to keep in mind when learning a new language is to make sure you don’t look silly when practicing the target language. Children have yet to learn this.

But I think the uncoolest thing I’ve ever done in Spanish was when I unfairly accused a Chilean man of something terribly unjust and un-called for. It was such a far-out bit of miscommunication that to this day I haven’t been able to bring myself to make reparations.

First of all, let me explain the situation (somewhat simplified for the sake of brevity): Earlier this year, I discovered a single bedroom apartment that was available for rent, and at a stunningly low price too. Until then, I’d always lived with a roommate, and I wanted my own place desperately. So I staked my claim and won the keys to the apartment. Problem was, I couldn’t move in on the first day of the month, and I had to move out of my other place at the end of the previous month. That meant that there were going to be a few days when I’d be in limbo.

A very good friend of mine offered me the use of his single-bedroom apartment while I waited for my new place to become available, and I accepted his offer graciously. It was going to be cramped, but it was only for a few days.

After some searching, I found the details of a flete, which is what Chileans call movers. I have just this moment learned that flete is Spanish for “freight.” The mover in question was named Pedro. He was friendly and he spoke some English. He also really seemed to know what he was doing. He helped me to load my cumbersome possessions onto the back of his flatbed truck and take them over to my friend’s apartment. It was a swift procedure, and Pedro and I parted as friends, with the agreement that he would return in a few days to help me transport my things to my new apartment.

This is Pedro, shrouded in darkness. Much like our friendship.

A day or two later, I received a message from Pedro. He’d strained his back while moving someone’s furniture and he wouldn’t be able to help me on the agreed-upon date. Was I willing to wait a few more days for him to recover?

I liked Pedro, and I did want to use his services. At the same time, however, I was sleeping on a couch and was totally invading my friend’s space. I didn’t want to wait for Pedro to recover, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings either. I explained to him, using a messy kind of Spanglish, that expediency was of the utmost importance. I told him that I would search for a more timeous mover, and in the event that I couldn’t find one, I would wait for Pedro to get back on his feet.

When John Lennon said, “Imagine all possessions,” I actually could.

Well, that very day I found my man. I don’t remember his name, but he was slightly more expensive than Pedro. Still, I was impatient, so I hired him. In a way, I was kind of glad that he was more expensive. I could use that as a way to smooth things over with Pedro. I intended to explain to him that the guy I found wasn’t nearly as good as he was. And, what’s more, this other guy was more expensive! So of course I would procure Pedro’s services again in the future, and even recommend him to my friends. I wrote all this out to Pedro in a Facebook message, and it was mostly in Spanish. Pedro accepted my explanation in a way that seemed cold to me. He wasn’t as chummy as he had been before, but I couldn’t blame him – he was losing a client, after all.

Aside Number 1: When learning a new language, it’s often helpful to learn new words along with their opposites. When I learned the Spanish word for boy (niño) I also learned the word for girl (niña). I also learned “long” and “short” together (largo y corto), as well as “expensive” and “cheap” (caro y barrato). This last one is important, because not only were these words that I was using with Pedro, but caro and barrato are also words that I sometimes get mixed up.

Perhaps you can see where this is going, but I assure you, you don’t.

Within my message to Pedro, I started writing “I have found someone who is more expensive than you are…”

In Spanish, it goes like this: “He encuento algien quien esta mas caro que tu…”

Aside Number 2: When learning a new language, it’s not uncommon to confuse words that tend to sound the same. For example, when I started learning Spanish, I would get confused between the word for “sixty” (seisenta) and “seventy” (setenta). I would often (and I still do) mix up “fifty” (cincuenta) and “five hundred” (quinientos). But my downfall with Pedro came about because, to me, the word for “cheap” (barrato) sounds very much like the word baracho, which is the Spanish word meaning “drunk.”

So my final message to Pedro wound up saying, “He encuentro algien quien esta mas baracho que tu…,” which of course means, “I have found someone who is more drunk than you are.”

I sent off that message without batting an eyelid, and slept soundly that night secure in the belief that Pedro and I were still on good terms. It was only about a week later, when I overheard someone say the word barrato in conversation, that thought back to that message to Pedro. I knew with certainty that I’d gotten “cheap” and “expensive” mixed up and resolved to rectify my error. I didn’t want Pedro to think I’d found someone better. I fully intended to go back and explain what had happened. It was a temporary lapse. My Spanish wasn’t so good, after all. But when I reopened the Facebook message and spied the word boracho instead of barrato, I knew that I was beyond redemption. My two-fold mistake was far to complicated and uncool to explain. I don’t think I even had the Spanish vocabulary to explain what had happened.

So I dropped the matter. I suppose it doesn’t matter really. I’m cosy in my own apartment, with my fat man keeping my tummy warm, and somewhere out there a really decent Chilean man thinks that a foreigner once accused him of being an alcoholic.

Fat man
I might have lost Pedro as a friend, but at least I’ve got my fat man.


Get, Lost: A Brief Guide to Bridging the Language Divide

I’ve spent a large portion of my twenties communicating with people who don’t speak English as a first language. Many of the people I’ve encountered don’t speak English at all, and over the years I’ve learned to optimize communication when words fall short. Thai people, for example, have trouble understanding you when you scream English into their faces. This goes for Chileans too, as well as Bolivians. And bus drivers. Actually, screaming English into someone’s face doesn’t really work as a thing.

But I’ve been around Spanish for a while now, and while I am by no means fluent in the language, I’ve at least learned enough about it to know some of the best ways to modify my English to optimize comprehension by a Spanish speaker who is not very fluent in English. So here follows a short list of things to do in order to aid communication from English to Spanish:

1.) Use Really Big Words

But not too big. That’s just pretentious.

Now, upon reading such a rule it can be reasonably assumed that the reader might exclaim, “Aha! That sounds like deception! This isn’t a reliable list at all!” But, please, Dear Reader, trust me on this. Because of the Latin influence in both English and Spanish, there are a lot of cognates between both. So, while your first impulse when talking to a Spanish speaker might be to “dumb down” your language, you’ll actually be doing your conversation partner a favour by elevating your vocabulary. So, for example:

Say “temperament” instead of “mood.”

Say “inundation” instead of “flood.”

Say “timid” instead of “shy.”

Say “encounter” instead of “meet.”

These words all have Spanish cognates, and will help a Spanish speaker quickly grasp your meaning. So, if you ever want to tell a Spanish speaker about the timid inundation you encountered which put you in a bad temperament, you won’t sound mad at all.

2.) Get Rid of Get

Black Hole
I don’t think even Stephen Hawking can explain “Get.”

For a lot of my students, the word “Get” is a lot like a black hole: They know that it exists, but they have trouble locating its exact whereabouts. It will almost never show up in a basic English speaker’s lexicon, but its Event Horizon is marked by the use of its many synonyms that circle the location where “Get” would fit in quite perfectly. My students will often go to great lengths to avoid using that dastardly three letter word. Look up the definition for “get,” and it’ll take your breath away. I’m often faced with sentences groaning under the scaffolding of phrases like “I was able to achieve” or “I wanted to become better at English, but I do not understand the joke about the inundation.”

3.) Avoid Phrasal Verbs.

Take Off
I love the sight of a plane giving up. Or off. Or whatever.

Following closely on the heels of “Get” we have our versatile phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a short idiomatic expression usually consisting of at least one verb and one preposition. “Ask for” is a phrasal verb. So is “Carry on” and “Look forward to.” Each phrasal verb should be treated like a new unit of vocabulary altogether. It’s tricky to figure out its meaning on a first reading. And the variety! Holy cow! Try telling a student that to “Take off” means to remove an item of clothing and to leave an event and for a plane to go up in the air and for something to become successful. Now expect them to remember all of those meanings and then to know exactly in which way you mean it when you fire it at them in conversation. What a task! So, do your discussion partner a favour, and say “Request” instead of “Ask for,” “Continue” instead of “Carry on,” and “Eagerly await for something positive that you expect will happen in the future” instead of “look forward to.”

4.) Pretend You’re in Downton Abby

Downton Abby
This is just the kind of nonsense up with which the Dowager Countess shall not put.

This last rule is really the golden rule, as it pretty much includes all the rules that go before it. But along with avoiding phrasal verbs, and “Get,” and by using a higher vocabulary, the characters in Ye Olde English Televisione Showes also speak in a way that mirrors the structure of Spanish. One of the more prominent ways is that characters in Downton Abby usually put their prepositions at the beginning of a sentence. Google Translate will tell you that the literal translation of “Who did you speak to?” in Spanish is “With whom did you speak?”

I haven’t really done any research on the matter, but it seems to me that the structure of Spanish echoes the way English used to sound. So by pulling your speech back in time a few decades, you have a better chance of reaching your Spanish-speaking audience.

While this list is not foolproof, and although it may make you sound like a banana to all your English speaking friends, these hints will provide welcome solace any time you happen to be communicating with a Spanish speaker who has only just started to get a grasp of English.

Pictured: A successful bridge between languages.