Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation: The Cha-Cha… and One More Hot Tamale


Dear reader,

This week let’s consider two Spanish words and their English translations: chachachá (that infectious rhythm born in Cuba) and tamal, which we looked at some weeks back.

From that musical colossus, Cuba, there emerged around 1953 another in a long line of dance sensations, a gently upbeat creation by composer, violinist and bandleader Enrique Jorrín.  It derived from the danzón, a rhythm generally played by smaller orchestras of refined or “French” sound, known as ”charangas”, with melodies typically carried by flute and violin.

Jorrín called his rhythm chachachá due to its triple rhythmic figure and the swishing sound of the dancer’s shoes against the floor. (The original onomatopoeia apparently was shashashá.)

In English, it loses the chá and becomes simply “cha-cha”: the name no longer reproduces the rhythm. But why?  We can suspect that phonetics played a role: it’s not easy for English speakers to pull off chachachá’s three crisp syllables (though musicians typically have no such trouble).

Phonetics, too, helped make “tamale” the English singular of Spanish tamal.  Besides the logical (though incorrect) inference that the singular of tamales was tamale, people’s ear told them that “tamale” sounded better in English—it has a pleasing sway and even conveys an exotic note in naming a food that for a century has been delighting North American taste buds.

So: one case of something lost, and another of something gained, in translation.

¡Buenas palabras!


A version of this article appeared in La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) published Oct. 21, 2012, along with a Spanish-language version.

Copyright © 2012 by Pablo J. Davis. All rights reserved.



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.

3 Responses to Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation: The Cha-Cha… and One More Hot Tamale

  1. Pingback: Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción: El chachachá… y otro tamal « Interfluency: Translation+Culture

  2. Pingback: Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation: You say “tamal”, I say “tamale” « Interfluency: Translation+Culture

  3. Fred says:

    I was once at a Mexican restaurant in San Pedro, CA. When I ordered a “tamal”, the Mexican-American waiter corrected me, saying “tamale”. Go figure.

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