A case of falling

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Dear reader,

“What goes up, must come down.” How often do we reflect on the profound wisdom contained in the six words of that hackneyed phrase (five in Spanish: Todo lo que sube, baja)?

caida-fall-sign-cartel-peligro-dangerIt turns out this most simple physical act—if indeed we can call what gravity does the “act” of the body that falls—permeates language in deep and unexpected ways.

“Chance” expresses luck, probability, risk, randomness, opportunity. It comes to us via French from Latin: cadentia was Vulgar Latin for “falling,” from the Latin verb cadere (Span. caer). We hear the cad- root in “cadence,” the rhythm or pulse of music, as with a walking or running pace, but also the way a musical composition or section resolves—how it “falls.” The same root yields “decadence” (Sp. decadencia) and “decay” (Sp. decaimiento is “a weakened or discouraged state”; in the sense of the breakdown or rotting of matter, the Spanish word would be descomposición).

Cadere’s participle form, casus (like “see” has the participle form “seen”), gives us “case”  (Span. caso), whose main sense is a situation requiring investigation and action (such as treatment in the medical realm, prosecution or defense in the legal). Span. acaso means “maybe, by chance.” Casus also gives “casual” for “unplanned, informal” (Spanish emphasizes randomness: casualmente is “by chance”). Another descendant of Lat. casus: war’s “casualties” for “killed and wounded,” though sometimes the term is understood to mean only those killed. More poetically, the casualties of war are expressed as “the fallen”—though, oddly, that phrase with its tone of nobility is generally not applied to civilian dead and wounded, who in most wars are more numerous.

That which happens to us, a bit archaically, “befalls” us. But this sense is alive and well in the latest iterations of language, though expressed differently: we speak of how an event “went down,” we wait and see “how things fall out” and hope they “fall into place.”  Span. cómo caen las fichas is something like “how the dice fall.” We “fall in” with friends, until we have a “falling out.” “Fall in” also means the incorporation of an individual or group,  such as soldiers, into a march, drill, or parade.

One “falls for” a trick; Spanish has caer en la trampa, “to fall into a trap.” Spanish, picturesquely, has caer como un chorlito, literally “to fall like a little bird.” But on figuring something out, on realizing the truth, uno cae en la cuenta—something like “to fall into awareness.”

Between entering the world at birth and our final fall (when one “drops dead,” cae muerto), the most dramatic event in most of our lives is that moment when we “fall in love” (Sp. enamorarse).

Once again we are face to face with the mysterious quality of the verb “to fall,” caer: it seems to name a voluntary action (like “to walk,” “to cook”), yet it really expresses the operation on a body of an exterior force—love, death, gravity.

It’s hard to fathom the importance of this notion to language and culture. In the Christian worldview, the original act of disobedience causes “the Fall” (la Caída) of Humanity into a state of sinfulness. Indeed, the Fall could be understood as the framework for all of human history.

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!

Pablo

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Dec. 11-17, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 210 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).

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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”!

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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.

The position must be filled

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Dear reader,

We’re about to see two political conventions whose result may not be foreordained. Many find this strange, even unthinkable. But it’s how conventions used to be—before they became blockbuster TV specials with lots of flash but no real drama.

A bilingual look at some words of the season:

Roman white toga

“Candidate” comes from the Roman custom of those seeking public office wearing a white (candidum) toga, symbolizing purity. It’s unclear if this would make apt electoral attire today.

Convention, from Latin convenire “to come together.” Spanish convención has been widely used for such gatherings for some time; in the early/mid 20th century it surpassed an older term still not entirely obsolete: asamblea (assembly).

“Convention” can also mean a broadly accepted custom, as when broadcasters say a show starts at “9PM/8PM Central” it’s understood 9PM means Eastern time. Spanish “Convengamos en que…” (Let’s agree that) uses this sense of “convention.”

Span. convenio, from the same Latin root, means “agreement” as in an international treaty or a legal settlement.

Candidate and  candidato go back to a Roman custom: aspirants to public office wore white togas. Lat. candidum meant “white, pure.” Engl. “candid” took French’s sense “frank, sincere.” Span. cándido takes up a different sense: “naïve.” Neither “candid” nor cándido generally spring to mind when thinking of politicians.

Nominee. This sense is old in English, from at least the 1680s. The Spanish equivalent: candidato, simply, or titular (el titular del partido Republicano, the Republican Party nominee). A quaint term is “standard-bearer” (“standard” a term for “flag”); Span. has an equivalent, abanderado.

Running. Candidates “run” for office (or “stand” in the UK). In Spanish se postulan or se presentan, which are both also ways of saying “to apply”—as for a job. The electorate is a strange employer, though, as it is forced to hire someone even if not satisfied with the applicants.

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!

Pablo

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Jul. 17-23, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 189 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).

Of masks, minds, sinners, and the word “person”

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

What is it you and I, and everyone we know, are all examples of? So many words for it: “individuals,” “human beings,” just plain “humans,” “persons,” to name just a few. These are plurals; in the singular, each of us is an “individual,” a “human being,” or simply a “human,” or a “person.”  That last word may be the most common of all.persona máscara classic mask

“Person” has an interesting history: it comes from Latin persona, with a root sense of “to sound through”—the reference is to an actor’s mask, possibly with some means of voice amplification, as with a horn. Persona, then, came to mean “role” or “character,” gradually acquiring the further sense of “person, individual.” Engl. “persona” (with the “a” hanging on at the end just like in Latin) still means an assumed role or personality.

Persona’s descendants are found throughout the Romance languages (Sp.. It. persona, Fr. personne which can also mean “nobody,” Port. pessoa, etc.), but also Ger. Person, Swed. person, and many others.

The Slavic languages use a wholly different word: Rus. chelovek (pronounced “chel-a-VYEK”) appears to derive from words for “mind, thought” and “time, eternity”—thus the word for “person” would mean something like “eternal mind,” a lovely and spiritual sense Plato no doubt would have savored. (Engl. “man” seems, likewise, cognate with “mind” and originally meant any human being.)

Depending on the context, a whole series of terms can be more or less equivalent to “person”: “citizen,”  “subject”, “taxpayer,” “voter,” “resident,” and “consumer,” to name just a few. Of course their connotations differ pretty dramatically. There is an assertion of rights implicit in “citizen” that’s not quite there in “consumer,” though the latter has legal rights too.

Then there is “souls” with all its mystery and sometimes pathos—think of a phrase like “the 1,517 souls that perished on the R.M.S. Titanic.”

A curious and fascinating word for “person” is pikadur in Guinea-Bissau Crioulo, a tongue with a strong Portuguese core plus West African elements. Pikadur is from Port. pecador (sinner). Pecado (sin) is related to the second syllable in “impeach” which originally meant “to find fault, to find sin.”  In this word for “person,” the hand of the Christian missionary is not hard to see!

Theology meets language: in Crioulo you may mean “person” but you’re saying “sinner”!

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!

Pablo

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Jul. 8-14, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 188 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).

De máscaras, mentes, pecadores… y la palabra “persona”

Click here for English/Enlace para inglés

Querida lectora o lector,

¿Qué es lo que usted y yo y todos los que conocemos tenemos en común? Somos todos “individuos”, “seres humanos”, “humanos” a secas, “personas”. Este último sería el término más común de todos. En inglés se dice person (el plural más usado, sin embargo, es people, que se pronuncia “PI-pel”).persona máscara classic mask

La historia de “persona” es interesante: en latín, persona (cuyo sentido etimológico es “sonar a través de”) se refiere a la máscara del actor clásico, tal vez equipada con un medio de amplificación como el cuerno. Persona habría significado “rol” o “personaje” para luego adquirir el sentido de “persona, individuo”. En inglés aun se dice persona (pronunciada “per-SOU-na”) por “rol o personalidad asumida”.

Los descendientes de persona, del latín, son muchos en lengua romance: persona (ital.), personne (francés, donde también puede significar “nadie”), pessoa (port.). Pero también existen más allá: person (sueco), persoon (holandés), y en otras lenguas.

En la familia eslava la raíz es otra: chelovek en ruso (pronunciada “chel-a-VIEK”) parece tener las raíces “pensamiento, mente” y “tiempo, eternidad”—así, la palabra por “persona” significaría “mente eterna”, hermoso sentido espiritual que a Platón le hubiera encantado. (En inglés, de modo similar, man pareciera estar emparentada con mind, “mente” y antes significaba cualquier ser humano.)

De acuerdo al contexto, hay toda una serie de términos más o menos equivalentes a “persona”.  “Ciudadano”, “súbdito”, “contribuyente”, “vecino”, y “consumidor” son ejemplos. Claro, sus connotaciones difieren de modo dramático. Hay un reclamo de derechos implícito en el uso de “ciudadano” que está ausente en “consumidor”—si bien este último también tiene sus derechos.

¿Y la palabra “alma”? Con todo su misterios y a veces patetismo, es muy otra. Pensemos en una alusión a “las 1,517 almas que perecieron a bordo del Titanic”.

Otra voz curiosa con significado de “persona” es pikadur en el crioulo de Guinea-Bissau, lengua con fuerte núcleo portugués más elementos africanos occidentales. Su origen es pecador. En ese uso de pikadur queda manifiesta la mano del misionero cristiano.

Es el encuentro de la lengua con la teología: en crioulo por más que pienses  “persona” dices “pecador”!

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!  

Pablo

Copyright  ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  Se reservan todos los derechos. Una anterior versión de este ensayo apareció originalmente en la edición del 8 al 14 de julio de 2016 de La Prensa Latina(Memphis, Tennessee), como la entrega número 188 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).

 

The whole megillah

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

A friend was recently telling us about his first time on a plane: “Después la azafata nos explicó lo del cinturón, las salidas de emergencia y todo el rollo.” (Then the flight attendant explained about the seat belts, the emergency exits, and everything.)

megillahThe last phrase, y todo el rollo, is a common idiom in Spanish to refer to the whole of something, with a sense of thoroughness and detail. Colloquial English has equivalents including “the whole nine yards,” “the whole shootin’ match” and others.

Spanish rollo means roll (e.g. of paper). How is it that it can also mean  mean something like “the whole nine yards,” with the sense of completeness or tedium?

Before books became commonplace, documents were written on parchment arranged in rolls. The most famous of these was the Torah, the Hebrew Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) that is the origin and ancestor of what we know today as the Bible.

Here’s where a colloquial English expression, slightly outdated but still common, comes in: “the whole Megillah.” The phrase, carrying the same sense and tone of todo el rollo, undoubtedly arose among Yiddish speakers (as were nearly all Ashkenazi Jews, that is, those of European origin, as distinct from the Sephardim of Spanish and North African origin) using the deeply-familiar Hebrew word. The expression in Yiddish: gantse megillah.

The cartoon character “Magilla Gorilla” derives its name from the colloquial use of this word.

Megillah offers a fascinating case of a word whose origin is sacred and which takes on a colloquial meaning that is profane (in the strict sense of worldly, non-religious) and humorous.

¡Buenas palabras! … Good words!

Pablo J. Davis

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