Grammar and the “president elect”

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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.

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

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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

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

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”

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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).

The first of April, fools and innocence

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Dear reader,

It’s not a holiday, school kids don’t get the day off, stores don’t hold sales—but April First is widely loved.

April Fool’s Day is a day for telling false tales with a straight face—and, if the victim falls for it, crowing “April Fool!” aFree iPad visual!t your gullible listener. (French “Poisson d’Avril!” and Italian “Pesce d’aprile!¨ both mean “April fish”).

April Fool jokes can be in print too; many newspapers traditionally added a false front page over the real one, with absurd, fake news. A few papers still do it.

This US election campaign will be tough on April Fool pranksters—who can top the absurdity of the actual, real news?

In the Spanish-speaking world, though US influence has spread “El Día de los Tontos” somewhat, the real equivalent is Dec. 28, Día de los Santos Inocentes.

This light-hearted festival has a dreadful origin: the Biblical massacre of infants ordered by King Herod, who hoped the Baby Jesus would be among those slain. Christianity’s Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates these martyrs.

From those tragic innocents to the innocent victims of the creative lies of Dec. 28 is quite a jump. But that’s how popular culture adapted and transformed that ancient religious commemoration.

When someone falls for a Dec. 28 gag, the traditional gloat is “Que la inocencia te valga” (May your innocence do you good).

The tall tale can be called a “joke” (Span. chiste, broma), “practical joke” or “prank” (broma pesada). If it’s elaborately constructed, uses print or other media, and is meant to snare a large number of people, it’s a “hoax.” In Spanish, Dec. 28 jokes in particular are often called inocentadas, playing off the day’s name.

On a serious note, did you hear about the Trump-Sanders “national unity ticket”? And that Apple is giving away free iPads to commemorate Steve Jobs’s birthday? ¡Que la inocencia te valga!

Buenas palabras/Good words!

Pablo

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Mar. 25-31, 2015 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 174 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (Aamerican 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).

El Día de los Tontos… y la inocencia

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Querida lectora o lector,

No es un feriado, los escolares no tienen el día libre, no hay grandes ofertas en las tiendas—pero el primero de abril es una fecha muy celebrada.

Free iPad visual!April Fool’s Day (Día de los Tontos de Abril) es ocasión para tratar de engañar a compañeros, amigos o familiares con cuentos absurdos. Y si caen, se les canta “April Fool!” (¡Tonto de abril!). (Los franceses dicen “Poisson d’avril” y los italianos “Pesce d’aprile!” o sea, en efecto “Pescado de abril”.)

Las bromas del primero de abril pueden ser impresas también: muchos periódicos tenían la tradición de imprimir una primera plana falsa, antes de la verdadera, llena de noticias ficticias y absurdas. Algunos aun lo hacen.

Eso sí: la actual campaña electoral en EEUU ha hecho que sea difícil imaginar noticias falsas más absurdas que las reales.

En el mundo hispano, sobre todo en las poblaciones en mayor contacto con la cultura norteamericana, ha crecido hasta cierto punto la observación del primero de abril como “Día de los Tontos”.

Pero el día equivalente real es el 28 de diciembre, Día de los Santos Inocentes. La fecha tiene un origen terrible: la bíblica masacre de infantes bajo órdenes del Rey Herodes, que esperaba que se encontrase entre los bebés muertos el Niño Jesús.

De esos trágicos inocentes, a las inocentes víctimas de las creativas mentiras del 28 de diciembre, hay largo trecho. Pero así la cultura popular adaptó y transformó aquella conmemoración.

Cuando alguien cae en una broma de los Santos Inocentes, se le dice “¡Que la inocencia te valga!”

Para redondear con temas más serios, ¿sabía usted que Trump y Sanders han formado una “fórmula de unidad nacional”? Y que Apple está conmemorando el aniversario de Steve Jobs regalando iPads gratis, si uno escribe a free-ipads@apple.com? April Fool!

 ¡Buenas palabras! Good words!

Pablo

Una anterior versión de este ensayo apareció originalmente en la edición del 25 al 31 de marzo 2016 de La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), como la entrega número 174 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).

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