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Translating to Spanglish (“mis manos” and the reflexive verbs)

I have always thought that the old Italian adage “traduttore, traditore” (literally “translator, traitor”) has a little truth to it even when you count on the best translator in the world. There is something you lose irremediably when reading a translation. I am not talking here about a tricky translation, like the classic example of how in translating to Spanish the Oscar Wilde “The Importance of Being Earnest”, the English title plays with the double sense created by the same sound of “earnest” and “Ernest”. This double meaning does not exist in Spanish. The Spanish translation generally accepted is “La importancia de llamarse Ernesto”, which loses the innocent and delicious joke that is to be in English. But this is an extreme and a difficult case. Instead I am referring here to regular translations, to something more subtle, you can call them maybe the tone, some nuances, “the music” of the language.  Not so long ago I enjoyed a lot reading “El retrato de Dorian Gray” in Spanish–for continuing with Wilde- but now being able to appreciate in English “The portrait of Dorian Gray, the actual thing, it is a different and obviously much richer experience.   

A little experiment

 I have carried out the experiment of reading some pages in English of “don Quixote  of La Mancha”. Honestly you can say that these translations are excellent -and they are as excellent as they can be- but something is inevitably lost on the way.  “Toto, we are not in La Mancha anymore”.  No doubt I can understand why great men like Freud or Dostoyevsky learned Spanish just to read “don Quijote”.

Translating to Spanglish at home

Now let´s jump a little from these great professionals –the translators- to my home, where my little daughters speak only in Spanish but sometimes they translate, and translate literally from English, which ends up literally tearing the language of Cervantes apart.

Mis manos

“Papá, me voy a lavar mis manos” (“I am going to wash my hands”) says the little one after arriving home from her daycare. Here is a perfect example of Spanglish! “Lavarse” is a reflexive verb, so you should not use the possessive adjective “my” (“mis”) because everyone already knows you are referring to your own hands because of the reflexive pronoun “me”. How can one avoid this common mistake? By repetition, and  by answers and questions . “Papá, me voy a lavar las manos” I say with special emphasis on “las”. Then she repeats the correct phrase. If both she and I are not too tired I keep asking: “hija, ¿vas a lavarte las manos?”  – “Sí, papá, voy a lavarme las manos”. Sometimes it takes weeks to avoid this use of the possessive adjectives (mi, tu su, etc.) instead of the determined article (el, la los, las). But when it happens, when the girls  are able to say it naturally in actual Spanish I know that my daughters will become truly bilingual (I know very, very, few truly bilingual people. I am afraid I will never become one of them, but I’ll keep trying!).

Mi bufanda

Another classic example in winter time, “¿tengo que ponerme mi bufanda?” (do I have to put my scarf on?). My wife and I use to correct her at the same time “¿tengo que ponerme la bufanda”.  It´s kind of comical. These corrections in stereo from my wife and I have become a family joke, but that shows our commitment. In my view, it is the way to go. Please, teach your teacher to teach you in this way. Tell her/him “pregúntame si voy a lavarme los dientes” (“ask me if I am going to brush my teeth).  He or she should ask you tons of times those types of questions with different verbs and situations until you master it. 

Mi garganta

This little horror also happens often with verbs that take an indirect object like “doler” (to hurt), and the subject is a part of the body (me duele, te duele, le duele, etc.). My oldest, who is 8, told me the other day from the back seat of the car: “papá, me duele mi garganta” (my throat hurts). I forgot about proper Spanish and asked her the usual things good parents are supposed to ask on these circumstances, but I must confess, my initial impulse was tell her that she should have said “me duele la garganta”. Well, to adapt an English adage “once a teacher, always a teacher”. However, I thought, it could have been definitely worse with a completely literal translation “mi garganta duele”). Sometimes, Spanish speakers use the possessive adjective, but it is with a special, affectionate emphasis: “¿te duele tu pancita? (”Does your stomach hurt?).

Literal translation

There are countless examples where literal translation is grammatically wrong or, at least, it sounds a little weird to a Spanish speaker. We will work on them with a little help from my little translator daughters. They are a treasure for a Spanish teacher! I guess sooner or later, they will end up asking for copyright… and royalties for these posts.


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