How do you translate a sneeze… or a kiss?

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Onomatopeia, a powerful expressive resource, represents in written or spoken language a sound, action, or phenomenon. Some months back, we looked at some animal sounds, like the rooster’s “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” that Spanish expresses as ¡Kikirikí or ¡Cocoricó!

This week, let’s consider some human sounds, starting with the little explosion that is a sneeze. Spanish represents it as ¡Achís! (ah-CHEESS) or ¡Achús! (ah-CHOOSS); the second, less common, is similar to English “Ah-choo!”

Since sneezing is physiological, much more than cultural or linguistic, it’s evident that each language “hears” or “interprets” the sound uniquely.

Sometimes the languages differ widely. Spanish represents a kiss as ¡Chuik! (chweek) or ¡Muá! (mwah); English, as “Smooch!” For physical revulsion, Spanish uses ¡Puaj! (pwach, with guttural Germanic/Scots ‘ch’) or ¡Uf; typical in English is “Yuk!” or its infantile adjective form, as in “That’s yucky!” The latter’s one of the first words children in Spanish-speaking homes learn from English-speaking schoolmates.

Throat-clearing, on the other hand—a physiological act, that can also be used expressively to get someone’s attention or request silence—is similar: ¡Ejem! is almost identical to English “Ahem!”

Exclamations of pain are a curious case: the Spanish speaker stubbing her toe on a rock cries “Ayyy!” (like the letter ‘I’), nothing like English “Ouch!” or “Oww!” It turns out that an act one would think purely  physiological is actually cultural, and that pain is “pronounced” differently from language to language.

¡Buenas palabras!


Copyright  © 2013 por Pablo Julián Davis. All Rights Reserved. This essay was originally written for the 21-26 April 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the weekly bilingual column “Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”. Pablo J. Davis ( is an ATA Certified Translator (English>Spanish) and a Tennessee Supreme Court Certified Court Interpreter (English<>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.

One Response to How do you translate a sneeze… or a kiss?

  1. Pingback: ¿Cómo traducir un estornudo… o un beso? | Interfluency: Translation+Culture

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