It’s a pleasure to begin this series of explorations into language, and particularly into the curiosities and riddles of translating between English and Spanish. I invite you to explore with me, starting with some cases of “mirrors” in which the same concept is expressed in opposite ways in the two languages.
One curious case: giving or taking a test. In English, the teacher gives the test, the student takes it. The Spanish situation is more complex. In some countries (e.g. Peru, Chile, Argentina), it’s reversed: El estudiante da (gives) el examen, el maestro lo toma (takes it).
This isn’t because the student hands the completed exam to the teacher; rather, the logic is historical: in past times, oral examination was much more common in schools. The teacher tomaba (took) the exam, in much the way that a judge would tomar declaración (hear or receive testimony).
In other countries, usage can be different. In Mexico, for instance, the teacher usually da (gives) the exam, which the student tiene (has) or toma (takes).
However, in formal Spanish everywhere, students rinden (give) an exam.
Another mirror that can lead to confusion has to do with the word substitute. In English, “to substitute pepper for salt” means to use pepper instead of salt. In Spanish, the mirror sentence sustituir pimienta por sal means to drop pepper and use salt.
Moving from one language to another is fascinating—but sometimes traps of confusion lie in wait if we’re not careful!
This essay was first published, alongside its Spanish version, in La Prensa Latina, Memphis, Tennessee, on 22 July 2012.