Tonight, sometime around midnight, will mark the 300th anniversary of… well… how shall I put it?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Tonight marks an extraordinary anniversary… of an extremely ordinary event, one that occurs millions of times a day around the world. The kind of event that has never (as far as I know) been commemorated in a public way. So I seriously doubt you will hear of this anniversary anywhere else besides this page. And I happened to learn about it by sheer accident last night, 24 hours ahead of the big day.

When Laurence Sterne’s hilarious, bawdy, and yet (why “yet”?!!) philosophical novel Tristram Shandy first came out in 1759, it was like an earthquake through the English literary world, and ultimately shook literature around the globe. Even today, the book is unclassifiable, still a challenge to readers, and still an adventure to read–much as it must have been for Sterne to write.

Tristram Shandy coverThe key to the novel might well be the phrase “That reminds me…”  Among other things, and perhaps underlying all of its other qualities, Tristram Shandy is a meditation on the human mind’s penchant for associations. Looked at in a certain light, the novel is one long series of interruptions to the telling of a story… a ceaseless chain of digressions.

Last night I happened to sit down and re-read the first few pages of the book. In it, “Shandy,” the narrator, recounts how orderly his father was in his habits. Among the regularities the old man followed scrupulously was winding a clock: He “had made it a rule for many years of his life,–on the first Sunday night of every month throughout the whole year,–as certain as ever the Sunday night came,–to wind up a large house-clock which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands.”

And, it seems, Shandy’s father had over time also “gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.” And, as a result of this habit of his father’s, Shandy tells us that his “poor mother could never hear the said clock wound up,–but the thoughts of some other things unavoidably popped into her head…”

One of those “little family concernments” of the old man’s turned out to be of great import to Shandy. For, you see, he tells us: “I was begot in the night, betwixt the first Sunday and the first Monday in the month of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighteen.” Shandy then goes on to tell us readers how it is that he knows for certain that that was, indeed, the night.

So there you have it: a major literary anniversary. A three hundredth anniversary! Not Sterne’s birthday (that was Nov. 24, 1713); not the anniversary of the book’s publication; not even the birthday of the character, Tristram Shandy.

But rather, the date on which little Tristram was conceived.

And that, dear readers, reminds me of a story… Which will have to wait till another time.

To read Tristram Shandy free online, visit the Project Gutenberg page for the book at:




Drinking a unique toast

Enlace para español/ Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

In this season, many a glass is raised and “toasts” offered. The word seems to come from an old custom of using spiced toast to flavor wine; by extension it meant the person whose health was saluted.

Kroyer Peder Severin 'Hip Hip Hurrah!' 1888

Peder Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hoorah! (1888).

In Spanish it’s brindis, one of that language’s rare Germanic (as opposed to Latin) roots. From Ich bring dir “I bring you”—i.e., good wishes. (The verb brindar is “to offer, provide”.)

“To your health!” or variants thereof may well be the world’s most popular toast; Span. ¡Por su salud! or simply ¡Salud! and Fr. A votre santé! are close equivalents.

Toasts can be intricate, as in the legendary old Irish blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm on your face, the rains fall soft on your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

But where drinking and poetry intersect, it’s hard to beat William Oldys’s 18th century “anacreontic” (poetic term for a drinking song), “The Fly”:

Busy, curious, thirsty fly!
Drink with me and drink as I:
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine
Hastening quick to their decline:
Thine’s a summer, mine’s no more,
Though repeated to threescore.
Threescore summers, when they’re gone,
Will appear as short as one!

The empathy and fraternity with a tiny fellow mortal: how moving, how gently expressed! And likely inspired by a real fly on the edge of the poet’s glass.

¡Buenas palabras!


Pablo J. Davis is an attorney, translator, and historian. A version of this essay was originally published in the Dec. 24-30, 2017 issue of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, USA) as No. 262 of the weekly, bilingual column “Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” [Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción].

Un brindis único

Click here for English/Enlace para inglés

Querida lectora o lector,

Es época de levantar copas y ofrecer brindis. En inglés: toast, lo que significa principalmente “tostada”. En su acepción de “brindis” parece proceder de la antigua costumbre de saborizar el vino con tostadas de especias, y también podía referirse a la persona por cuya salud se brindaba.

Kroyer Peder Severin 'Hip Hip Hurrah!' 1888
Peder Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hoorah! (1888).

La voz “brindis” es una de las muy pocas en español de origen germánico, en vez de latín. Viene de Ich bring dir, “Yo te traigo”.

“¡Por su salud!” o “¡Salud!” probablemente sea el brindis más popular del mundo. En inglés, To your health! y en francés, A votre santé!

Los brindis pueden ser muy elaborados, como esta legendaria bendición irlandesa: “Que el camino se allane a su encuentro. Que el viento siempre le sople por la espalda. Que el sol le acaricie el rostro, la lluvia caiga suavemente sobre sus campos… y hasta la próxima, que el Señor lo mantenga en la palma de su mano.”

Pero es difícil sobrepasar el “anacreóntico” (canción de taberna) de William Oldys, del siglo XVIII inglés—la traducción al español a cargo de este servidor:

Mosca sedienta y audaz
Bebe, sírvete en paz
A mi copa, bienvenida
Toma todo lo que quieras
Aprovecha el momento
Que la vida es breve y fugaz.

Tu vida cual la mía igual
Corre hacia su final
La tuya un verano dura
La mía, sesenta con holgura.
Mas sesenta años cuando se hayan ido
Cual uno solo parecerán.

Hermosas, la compasión y hermandad que derraman estos versos hacia un pequeño compañero en la mortalidad. Seguro que inspiradas en una mosca real posada en el borde de la copa del poeta.

Good words!

Pablo J. Davis es abogado, traductor e historiador. Una versión de este ensayo se publicó originalmente en la edición del 24 al 30 de diciembre 2017 de La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, EEUU) como la entrega nro. 262 de la columna bilingüe semanal “Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción” [Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation].

The violent alienation of “ajeno”

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Recently your faithful servant stumbled across a recording of a song he had heard from time to time, but has now had a chance to listen to closely. It is a jewel. Beautiful… but painful. Composed by César Calvo, sung in the bell-like tones of Susana Baca, leading exponent of Peru’s Afro musical traditions: “María Landó” is a hypnotic chant evoking the back-breaking, mind-numbing, and most of all soul-deadening work that is the title character’s lot in life. And still that of most of our kind, humankind.

After singing of dawn breaking with its wings of light over the city… and noon with its golden bell of water… and night with its long goblet lifted to the moon… the lyric turns to María “who has no time to lift her eyes, her eyes wracked by lack of sleep, by sorrows… María who has no dawn, no noon or night… For María there is only labor, only labor and more labor… y su trabajo es ajeno: her labor is not her own.”

What power, what violence, what understanding of the world is compressed into that single word ajeno “belonging to another or others, alien, foreign, unfamiliar.” Its root, Lat. alienus, also yields Engl. “alien.” (Think of how the latter word is applied to immigrants.)

Argentina’s incomparable troubador Atahualpa Yupanqui sang of the exhausted herdsman driving cattle in the hills: “Las penas y las vaquitas/ se van por la misma senda./ Las penas son de nosotros,/ las vaquitas son ajenas” (Sorrows and cattle/ moving along the same trail/ The sorrows are our own,/ the cattle belong to another).

The Roman playwright Terence gave us this moving expression of compassion, of solidarity with all our fellow mortals: Homo sum, nihil humani me alienum est—I am human, and nothing that is human is alien to me.

¡Buenas palabras!


Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, J.D., is a historian, translator, and attorney. The essay above was originally published in La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) in the Nov. 20-26, 2017 issue, as No. 257 of the weekly, bilingual column “Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” [Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción].

“Ajeno” y su violencia

Click here for English/Enlace para inglés 

Querida lectora o lector,

No hace mucho este servidor se topó con una grabación musical que había oído de cuando en cuando, pero que en estos días ha podido escuchar detenidamente. Es una joya, hermosa pero dolorosa. Composición de César Calvo, en la voz franca y pasional de Susana Baca, titana del canto afro-peruano: un cántico hipnótico, evocación del trabajo incesante, agotador y embrutecedor al que se ve condenada por las circunstancias una tal María—“María Landó”. Destino aún de la mayoría de la humanidad.

Tras el lirismo de la primera estrofa, que canta a la madrugada con sus “alas que se dispersan por la ciudad”, el mediodía con su “campana de agua de oro” que ahuyenta la soledad y la noche que “levanta su copa larga” a la luna—volcamos la mirada hacia María que “no tiene tiempo de alzar los ojos rotos de sueño”, para quien no hay ni madrugada ni mediodía ni noche sino tan sólo trabajo, incesantemente trabajo y más trabajo: “María de andar sufriendo/ sólo trabaja/ María sólo trabaja/y su trabajo es ajeno…”

¡Cuánto poder, cuánta violencia, cuánta comprensión del mundo, encierra esa sola palabra “ajeno”…! El inglés no logra decir lo mismo con locuciones como belonging to another “que pertenece a otro”. (Y no olvidar las duras connotaciones de “alien” por “inmigrante”.)

El gran trovador argentino Atahualpa Yupanqui una vez cantó: “Las penas y las vaquitas/ se van por la misma senda/ Las penas son de nosotros,/ las vaquitas son ajenas”.

El dramaturgo romano Terencio nos legó esta conmovedora expresión de la compasión, de la solidaridad para con nuestros prójimos: Homo sum, nihil humani a me alienum est: Soy humano, y nada de lo humano me es ajeno.

Good words!


Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, J.D., es historiador, traductor y abogado. Este ensayo se publicó originalmente en La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, EEUU) en la edición del 20 al 26 de noviembre 2017, como la entrega nro. 257 de la columna bilingüe semanal “Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción” [Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation].

Grammar and the “president elect”

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

By the time these lines (written on Sunday) reach you, the election will be over—and all I can say is, I told you so. Which reminds me of the brilliant quip by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean who said, before the 1934 World Series against Detroit, “This Series is already won”—then added, “I just don´t know by which team.”

ballot-into-ballot-boxSo, as you read this, there will (presumably) be a president-elect. The term’s a bit odd: if a candidate is “elected,” why the form “elect”? (Spanish similarly has presidente electo where you might expect elegido.) The answer lies in the difference between “strong” and “weak” verbs in Germanic grammar, which is the main structure for how English works.

A weak verb forms the participle by adding an ending, typically “ed,” to the verb stem without changing the stem. Thus “bake” becomes “I had baked” and the participle can also act as an adjective: “baked chips.”

On the other hand, strong verbs like “seek,”  “sink,” and “bind” form irregular participles, short and punchy: “sought,” “sunk,” and “bound.” So, in English, the verb “elect,” while normally weak, in the phrase “president elect” behaves as a strong verb.

In Spanish, the equivalent principle derived from Latin grammar refers not to verbs, but rather to participles, as strong or weak.  Many verbs have both forms. Elegir (to elect or choose) yields me habían elegido (they had chosen me) in weak form, and presidente electo (president elect) in strong form, as an adjective. Habían freído las papas (they had fried the potatoes) but papas fritas (fried potatoes). Span. conquista and Engl. “conquest” both embody a strong form of verbs derived from Latin conquirere. Span. convencer gives convencido (convinced) but the strong form convicto (convicted); the English noun “convict” also derives from the strong form.

From “president elect” to “convict” in the same column—sadly, in 2016, regardless of who won, it doesn’t seem like such a big leap.

El presidente electo… ¿o elegido?

Link here for English/Enlace para inglés

Querida lectora o lector,

Para cuando estas líneas (escritas el domingo) le alcancen, las elecciones ya habrán concluído. Y salió todo tal como yo sabía. Lo que me recuerda a la feliz ocurrencia de Dizzy Dean, lanzador de los Cardenales de San Luís antes de la Serie Mundial de 1934 contra Detroit: “Esta serie ya está ganada”, sentenció—para luego agregar, “aunque no sé por cuál de los equipos”.


Así que, mientras usted lee esto, ya habrá un presidente electo, o presidenta electa (en inglés: president elect). Pero, ¿por qué decimos “electo/a” en vez de “elegido/a”? La respuesta está en la gramática de los participios.

El participio débil se forma agregando un sufijo, típicamente “ado” o “ido”, a la raíz del verbo. Así “habíamos visitado Colombia” o “he hablado con la directora”. En inglés el sufijo débil, por lo general, es -ed (I’ve always walked to work, “siempre he caminado al trabajo”).

El participio fuerte, en cambio, altera la raíz del verbo, que queda corto y rítmicamente fuerte: en inglés seek (buscar) deviene sought, bind (atar, encuadernar) deviene bound. (En la gramática germánica, que es la que predomina en inglés, no se habla de participios débiles y fuertes, como en la gramática derivada del latín, sino de verbos débiles y fuertes.)

En español muchos verbos tienen ambas formas (algunos verbos en inglés también, entre ellos elect). Así “elegir” da “me habían elegido” en forma débil y “presidente electo” o “presidente electa” en forma fuerte, adjetival. “He freído las papas” y “las papas ya están fritas”. El verbo latín conquirere dio el antiguo “conquerir” con participio débil “conquerido”. La forma fuerte “conquisto/conquista” lo suplantó, a tal punto que el infinitivo devino “conquistar.” “Convencer” en forma débil da “convencido” y en forma fuerte “convicto”.

De “electo” a “convicto” en una misma columna—por alguna razón, en este año 2016, no suena tan raro.

                   ¡Buenas palabras! Good words!

El doctor Pablo Julián Davis (,  Traductor Certificado (ATA) e Intérprete Certificado (Suprema Corte de Tennessee) con más de 25 años de experiencia, especializado en documentos legales y comerciales.

Word of a thousand disguises: the long, strange career of “freak”

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Words change across years and generations. They change spelling, sound, and especially meaning. But some follow such long and winding paths, so full of surprises, it can be incredible. One of these is the English word “freak.”

Circus poster photo, Ala., Walker Evans [1935] [AmMemory LOC id- fsa1998017988(slash)PP]

A key association of “freak” is with the circus, where it meant a person displayed due to some unusual (even hideous) characteristic such as extreme height, extra fingers, etc. This photo of a circus poster was taken in Alabama in 1935 by Walker Evans. (Source: Library of Congress, American Memory website)

Brave, fierce warrior.  From Old English, this sense dates to A.D. 900 or before.

Sudden fancy, whim.  This use was well established by the early 19th century. “A sudden freak seemed to have seized him” (Jane Austen). Spanish equivalents: capricho, locura. Not much used anymore. But freak out is—meaning a highly nervous or irrational reaction to a situation: “I need you to stay calm—don’t freak out on me.”

Enthusiast.  From the sense of “whim” arose that of “enthusiast.” It’s still common to hear, “She’s a health freak.” Spanish: Es una maniática de la salud.

Abnormal or extreme specimen. From “whim” came, too, the idea of the abnormal. A very tall person could be called “a freak” or “a freak of nature.” Around 1920 the term “circus freak” began to grow in use. It referred to an unfortunate person or animal fated to be exhibited in a circus, fair, or carnival. Spanish has fenómeno del circo. Typical attractions might be “The Bearded Lady” or “The Two-Headed Calf.”

Unusual, odd, rare. Similar to the previous sense, but distinct, is this broader one: as an adjective, “freak” can simply mean “unusual, odd, rare.” For instance, “a freak early-summer snowstorm” or “a freak occurrence.”

Drug user. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was commonplace to hear “freak” for an enthusiastic drug user, usually of marijuana or LSD.  It was also associated, in men, with beards and long hair. The combination “hippie freak” was common. An underground comic of the era was The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Nymphomaniac, hypersexual person. The drug-related sense began to give way to a new one. Rick James used it when he famously sang, “Super freak, the girl’s a super freak!” The meaning is that an individual is presumably insatiable in the sexual realm. Spanish has ninfómana and many slang terms, including loca (the feminine form of the adjective for “crazy”), much used in Argentina and Uruguay.

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the May 8-14, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 179 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).

What good translation is “for”!

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

 “Latinos para Trump” read signs at the GOP Convention. Clearly it meant “Latinos for Trump” but it didn’t say that: Spanish para can mean “for” but it’s not the same “for” used to indicate support of a candidate. (An even more unfortunate version of the sign, also seen at the convention, was  “Hispanics para Trump” which didn’t even use the Spanish word for “Hispanics”: hispanos.)

Latinos-Hispanics para Trump

Scenes from the Republican Convention held in Cleveland, Jul. 18-21, 2016.

The preposition para mainly means “for the purpose of, in order to, to be used by.” Papel para fotocopiadora, “paper for  photocopier, photocopy paper”; vegetales para ensaladas, “vegetables for salads, salad greens.”

“Latinos para Trump” says something like “Latinos to be used by Trump.” It should read: Latinos por (or con) Trump.

(We’ll revisit por/para again in the near future.)

The mistranslation unintentionally said some other things, too: “This sign was not made by a Latino” or (more accurately) “was not created by a native Spanish speaker.” Even worse: “We don’t care about Latinos, we just want their votes.”

Poor translation is poison: it undermines your message; makes you look foolish; and sends adverse signals—the worst being, “We don’t care enough to do this right.”

Every time an organization assigns a translation to some employee who happens to (it is believed) “speak Spanish,” the result will almost certainly be unfortunate—and maybe deadly: imagine the mistranslation of a safety warning!

Few of us would let our brother-in-law “who fools around with electrical stuff” do the wiring of our house. Or have the neighbor who once took a CPR course operate on our liver. But, in essence, that’s what’s routinely done with translation (and its spoken cousin, interpreting). These are professional, technical skills requiring training and experience, not something you can do just because you (sort of) know a second language—and not even just from being bilingual.

¡”Por” algo hay que traducir bien!

Link here for English/Enlace para inglés

Querida lectora o lector,

“Latinos para Trump” rezaban los carteles en la Convención del Partido Republicano esta última semana. Obviamente debería haber sido “Latinos por Trump” o “Latinos con Trump”. Quien confeccionó el cartel no se dio cuenta de que “para” no es la traducción correcta de la preposición for en la frase en inglés, Latinos for Trump. (Otra versión del cartel que se vio por ahí era más desatinada aun: “Hispanics para Trump”!)

Latinos-Hispanics para Trump

Escenas de la Convención del Partido Republicano de EEUU, celebrada en Cleveland, Ohio del 18 al 21 de julio 2016.

El significado principal de “para” es “a fin de, destinado a, para consumo o uso de”. Así decimos “papel para fotocopiadora” ó “vegetales para ensalada”. “Latinos para Trump” entonces, es como si se dijera, “Latinos a ser usados por Trump”.

Sin querer, el error comunicó otras cosas también: “Quien hizo este cartel no es latino” ó (mejor dicho) “no es hispanohablante nativo”. Peor aun: “No nos importan los latinos, sólo queremos sus votos”.

La mala traducción es veneno. Socava el mensaje de uno, lo hace quedar como tonto y transmite señales poco afortunadas—sobre todo esta: “Esto no nos importa lo suficiente como para hacerlo bien”.

Cada vez que una organización le asigna una tarea de traducción a algún empleado sin otro antecedente ni calificación que el de (presuntamente) “hablar español”, el resultado casi seguro será embarazoso o peor.  Incluso, tal vez, fatal: imagine sin más el caso de la traducción de un manual de seguridad.

¿Quién dejaría que su cuñado que “hace pinitos en cosas de electricidad” haga el cableado de su casa? ¿O que el vecino que una vez tomó un curso de primeros auxilios le opere al hígado? Sin embargo, es lo que se hace frecuentemente con la traducción (y su contraparte oral, la interpretación). Se trata de destrezas profesionales, técnicas, que exigen estudio, capacitación y experiencia. No es algo que se pueda hacer sólo porque uno “más o menos” sabe un segundo idioma—ni aun, siquiera, por el hecho de ser bilingüe.

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!  


Copyright  ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  Se reservan todos los derechos. Una anterior versión de este ensayo apareció originalmente en la edición del 31 julio al 6 agosto 2016 de La Prensa Latina(Memphis, Tennessee), como la entrega número 191 de la columna semanal bilingüe “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT es Traductor Certificado por la ATA (American Translators Association), inglés>español, e Intérprete Certificado por los Tribunales del Estado de Tennessee inglés<>español, además de entrenador en los campos de la traducción, interpretación y competencia transcultural. Es doctor en Historia de América Latina por la Universidad de Johns Hopkins, y actualmente candidato al Juris Doctor en la Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Memphis (mayo 2017).

%d bloggers like this: