An attractive young woman walks gracefully down the street, inspiring a gentleman standing at a storefront to call out, “¿Qué culpa tiene el árbol de haber nacido en el campo, y qué culpa mi corazón por amarte tanto?” [A tree stands on the ground where it was born, my heart by hopeless love is torn].
That rather old-fashioned scene features a free rendering into English of the sort of elegant, even poetic, compliment known in Spanish as a piropo (original meaning: a ruby or red garnet). This gallant form of praise for a lady’s charms, though scarcer than fifty or a hundred years ago on the streets of Zacatecas, Ponce, or Maracaibo (gentlemen’s remarks to ladies in the public thoroughfare now tending to the somewhat less poetic), still remains part of everyday Hispanic/Latin American culture.
http://tinyurl.com/tuejanica2 offers some vintage piropos along with poetry on the subject and reflections on the waning, if not outright extinction, of the custom.
Translators find a particular challenge and fascination in words like piropo that name a concept either non-existent in the other language, or not central enough to the culture to have any simple means of expression. Dictionaries offer us either explanations that don’t exactly roll smoothly off the tongue (the Oxford Concise’s “flirtatious/flattering comment”), or expressions that lose the spice and charm of the original (the Espasa-Calpe’s rather flat “compliment”).Some even use the still more pedestrian translation “line,” as in something a fellow might routinely use in a bar—likely far less poetic or gallant than what’s meant by piropo.
Your thoughts, readers? Is there a good English equivalent for piropo—the word itself, or the custom it names?
Copyright ©2012 Pablo J. Davis. Se reservan todos los derechos. All Rights Reserved. A version of this essay was first published, alongside its Spanish version, in La Prensa Latina, Memphis, Tennessee, on 19 August 2012.