Día de los Muertos, Halloween, and translation

Grinning skulls, jangling skeletons… candies, cakes, and other sweets… Halloween is almost upon us, and so too is the festival known in Mexico as ‘Día de los Muertos’ or more simply ‘Día de Muertos’.  They are just two days apart: this year, Halloween falls on a Monday (Oct.31) and el Día de los Muertos –  often rendered in  English as ‘the (Mexican) Day of the Dead’ – on Wednesday (Nov.2).  Surely these are two near-identical cultural equivalents! Surely they ‘translate‘ clearly and correctly one to the other!


But do they really? Just as the Spanish word ‘amigo’ (or ‘amiga’) and English ‘friend’ may be side-by-side in bilingual dictionaries, yet tend to mean quite different things to the people using them – and the same can be said for familia/family, fiesta/party, and countless other culturally significant word pairs – so Halloween and Día de los Muertos share some key symbols and the time of year but are radically different phenomena.

The (often unsuspected) differences between what many people think of as equivalent holidays is not quite what is meant by the term  ‘false friends’.  The latter term refers to words that appear to the foreign speaker to mean one thing, due to their similarity with a familiar word in her language, but that in fact mean something different.  An English speaker, on reading in Spanish that ‘Gómez sufrió repetidas injurias a manos de Pérez’, may imagine that Pérez repeatedly assaulted Gómez, causing him physical injuries; when in fact, Spanish ‘injuria’ means insults, lies, slander, and other sorts of verbal attacks.  False friends can be tricky, but ultimately are fairly easily caught and corrected by speakers with good mastery of both languages.

Not so cultural phenomena.  There the differences are more subtle, may not even be captured by the bilingual dictionary.  Most English speakers, for instance, more readily use ‘friend’ where a Spanish speaker tends to use ‘compañero’ or ‘colega’, reserving ‘amigo’ or ‘amiga’ for a closer relationship. In other words, ‘amigo/amiga’ is a harder title to earn – we can think of it as perhaps socially more ‘expensive’ – than is ‘friend’. No criticism of either culture meant here: it’s simply a cultural difference, an important one that can cause hurt and misunderstanding when not perceived by one side or the other.

What does all this mean for Halloween and the Día de los Muertos?  These two holidays, seemingly close equivalents if not downright interchangeable, map very differently onto the two cultures.  Halloween is largely about defying and even mocking death, about neutralizing its terrors by rendering them theatrical.  There is a kind of daring play involved, a dancing around the macabre.

In Mexican culture, el Día de los Muertos is something else entirely.  One celebrates, remembers, honors, one’s deceased loved ones – parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles – it’s common to hear people speak of ‘mi muertito’ or ‘mi muertita’ (my beloved dead one) for a deceased father or grandmother, spouse or sibling. Ancient, pre-Columbian and pre-Christian traditions of ancestor worship and love were intertwined, over the colonial decades and centuries that unfolded after Contact and Conquest, with the Christian calendar and rites to create something new: scholars of religious history and culture refer to ‘syncretic’ religious practices.  Thus the celebration of the Día de los Muertos came to coincide with All Souls Day, or the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, on the Christian calendar.

The ramifications of ritual involved in this festivity are elaborate and complex.  The baking of cakes in the form of skulls and skeletons, the making of skeletal figurines often fully dressed and adorned with hats and other accessories, the fashioning of altars bearing photographs of beloved dead and containing offerings to them, the creation of satiric verses, and a rich graphic tradition of death-related iconography (most famously in the work of José Guadalupe Posada, whose ‘La Catrina’ is above left) are just some of the flowerings of festive practice that the Día de los Muertos has given rise to.

Though there are some cultural-religious practices elsewhere in Latin America that have some commonalities with El Día de los Muertos – for instance, the cult of ‘San La Muerte’ (Saint Death) in the Guaraní cultural zone of northern Argentina, southern Brazil, and Paraguay, deeply rooted in the populace but rejected by the Catholic Church as pagan practice – there is nothing quite like El Día de los Muertos and its centrality in Mexican culture.

Still, the wholeness and acceptance in the face of mortality, and the imperative of sustaining connection with loved ones no longer living, that are the heart of Mexico’s Día de los Muertos form a thread that runs through much of Latin America’s cultural map. Argentina’s Atahualpa Yupanqui, wrote half a century ago in his memorable anthem, ‘Los hermanos’:

Yo tengo tantos hermanos     I have so many brothers and sisters
que no los puedo contar.        that I can’t count them all.
En el valle, la montaña,          In the valleys, in the mountains,
en la pampa y en el mar.        On the pampas and at sea.

Cada cual con sus trabajos,    Each one with his work,
con sus sueños, cada cual.      with her dreams, each one.
Con la esperanza adelante,     With hope before them
con los recuerdos detrás.         And memories behind

. . .

Y así, seguimos andando                And so we go on,
curtidos de soledad.                        Hardened by loneliness
Y en nosotros nuestros muertos   And inside us, we carry our dead
pa que nadie quede atrás.              So that nobody’s left behind

Yo tengo tantos hermanos             I have so many brothers and sisters
que no los puedo contar . . .          that I cannot count them all . . .

In the end, interpreting cultural phenomena across languages challenges us to a subtlety of understanding even beyond what translation usually demands.  Things that look the same can be fundamentally different.


About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, ATA Certified Translator (Engl>Span) and Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (EnglSpan), offers world-class Spanish/English language services including translation, interpreting, copywriting, and editing in both languages. His specialties are legal, business, medical, and humanities/education; he has wide experience in other fields as well. Also offered: interactive and transformative cultural-awareness training for companies, non-profits, communities, government agencies, institutions of faith, and other audiences. (See just a small sampling of testimonials from happy and satisfied clients: interfluency.com/testimonials.html) The ability to move effectively from language to language - which necessarily also means moving between cultures - has likely never been at a greater premium than it is in today's world. That ability is what we mean by Interfluency TM.

4 Responses to Día de los Muertos, Halloween, and translation

  1. Rendered in the manner of the wise man that you are. Thanks for the subtle – and not so subtle-
    distinctions. Useful: should be a poem in there somewhere.
    Awesomed, Martin Galvin

  2. Janet Zimmerman says:

    Beautiful description of the differences. I have had a Dia de los Muertos altar in our home since being introduced to the custom in Mexico years ago. The Yupanqui poem (or song) is a perfect description of why this is meaningful to me personally: “…And inside us we carry our dead So that nobody is left behind I have so many brothers and sisters That I cannot count them all…”
    Thank you!

  3. Thanks for this, Pablo. It helps so much when we learn about each other’s cultures. Your description gave me so much insight and understanding of ‘Día de Muertos’. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: Martes 13, Tuesday the 13th… and Friday the 13th: more adventures in translating culture « Interfluency: Translation+Culture

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