This edition of “Mysteries and Enigmas” marks the thirtieth time we’ve shared questions and curiosities related to travels between Spanish and English, that journeying between languages and cultures that we call translation. Thanks for the good company!
An imagining of the Founding Father’s signature with first name Hispanicized, as he was long referred to traditionally in the Spanish language.
The third Monday in February (the 18th, this year) brings the commemoration of the first president’s birthday. (Though many call it ‘Presidents’ Day’, assuming it to be a joint tribute to Washington, born Feb. 22, and Lincoln, Feb. 12, by federal law it continues to be Washington’s Birthday.)
In Spanish, the “Father of His Country” was, until recently, typically called Jorge Washington. This usage has declined in recent decades, though; since the ‘70s George Washington is more frequent, though Jorge has by no means disappeared.
Thus, it was long customary to Hispanicize the US statesman’s name (and the name of the king whose dominion over The Thirteen Colonies Gen. Washington helped to end: Jorge III). Likewise, Tomás Jefferson, Carlos Dickens, Juan Sebastián Bach, and Alejandro Dumas were more prevalent than Thomas, Charles, Johann Sebastian,and Alexandre, respectively.
In this, Spanish isn’t unique (note Georges, Georg, and Giorgio Washington in French, German, and Italian). But the phenomenon was particularly strong in Hispanic culture.
The reasons for this quaint custom, no doubt complex, may relate to an old, deeply-rooted sense of a historia universal, a literatura universal: roughly “world history” and “world literature” but with a different connotation: the sense of a larger something, a culture to which we all belonged—making Washington, Bach, Dickens, in a sense, not really foreigners to educated speakers of Spanish.
Paradoxically, the custom’s decline would seem linked to the dramatically accelerated circulation of texts and images in today’s world, because that circulation is so heavily influenced by US English and its attendant culture—which in general, other than for the names of saints and popes, does not share this Hispanic custom.
Copyright 2013 by Pablo Julián Davis. All rights reserved. This essay was originally written for the 17 February 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the weekly bilingual column entitled “Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción”/”Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”. Pablo Julián Davis (www.interfluency.com) is an ATA Certified Translator (English>Spanish) and a Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Court Interpreter (English<>Spanish).