The riddle of “fish”

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Here’s a little puzzle: how do you translate the noun “fish” into Spanish?

A moment’s reflection shows us that, without some context or a visual image, we can’t be sure of the solution. That “fish”, in the river, is translated as pez, but in the fisherman’s nets, or the cook’s pot, it’s a pescado.

Una cosa es ser pez, y muy otra ser pescado (en este caso, se trata de la perca).

In English a fish is a fish, but in Spanish it really matters (especially to the fish) whether it’s a pez or a pescado. (Above are perch in one or the other circumstance.)

What’s most interesting is not so much the obvious fact that good translation requires contextual information, but rather that Spanish makes a distinction as to whether the fish is free, caught, or cooked, while English lumps these senses into the single word “fish”. Another puzzle: how to translate dedo from Spanish to English? Well, it depends on whether the digits are attached to hands (“fingers”) or feet (“toes”). In this case, unlike fish, it’s English that differentiates, while Spanish lumps.

English also differentiates “party” from “holiday” (in Spanish, both are fiesta), “upbringing” from “education” (both Spanish educación).

But  English “to be” lumps ser (essence, as in ser madre, to be a mother) and estar (temporary condition, as in estar ansioso,  to be anxious). And where English has “Congratulations!”, Spanish differentiates between  ¡Felicitaciones! for, say, winning a prize and ¡Felicidades! on the birth of a child.

A useful lesson: neither English nor Spanish can be said, in any sweeping way, to be more subtle than the other. As in the Inuits’ (Eskimos’) mythical “400 words for snow”, each language has areas where it makes fine distinctions, and others where it lumps senses together into a single word.

Good words!


Copyright 2013 by Pablo Julián Davis. All Rights Reserved. A version of this essay was originally written for the March 17-23, 2013 issue of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the “Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation” weekly, bilingual column. Pablo Julián Davis ( is an ATA Certified Translator as well as a Tennessee Supreme Court Certified Court Interpreter for Spanish.


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.

2 Responses to The riddle of “fish”

  1. Pingback: El rompecabezas de “fish” | Interfluency: Translation+Culture

  2. Karina says:

    You’re so right Pablo! We can find so many differences in each language, and sometimes we can’t find a translation to a word, can we? It was really useful! Thank you very much for sending me this mail.

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