Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation: Taking and giving a test, and other mirrors


Dear readers,

It’s a pleasure to begin this series of explorations into language, and particularly into the curiosities and riddles of translating between English and Spanish.  I invite you to explore with me, starting with some cases of “mirrors” in which the same concept is expressed in opposite ways in the two languages.

One curious case: giving or taking a test.  In English, the teacher gives the test, the student takes it.  The Spanish situation is more complex.  In some countries (e.g. Peru, Chile, Argentina), it’s reversed: El estudiante da (gives) el examen, el maestro lo toma (takes it).

This isn’t because the student hands the completed exam to the teacher; rather, the logic is historical: in past times, oral examination was much more common in schools.  The teacher tomaba (took) the exam, in much the way that a judge would tomar declaración (hear or receive testimony).

In other countries, usage can be different.  In Mexico, for instance, the teacher usually da (gives) the exam, which the student tiene (has) or toma (takes).

However, in formal Spanish everywhere, students rinden (give) an exam.

Another mirror that can lead to confusion has to do with the word substituteIn English, “to substitute pepper for salt” means to use pepper instead of salt.  In Spanish, the mirror sentence sustituir pimienta por sal means to drop pepper and use salt.

Moving from one language to another is fascinating—but sometimes traps of confusion lie in wait if we’re not careful!

Buenas palabras,


This essay was first published, alongside its Spanish version, in La Prensa Latina, Memphis, Tennessee, on 22 July 2012.



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: 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.

One Response to Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation: Taking and giving a test, and other mirrors

  1. Pingback: Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción: Dar o tomar un examen y otros espejos / Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation: Taking and giving a test, and other mirrors « Interfluency: Translation+Culture

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