Here’s a little puzzle: how do you translate the noun “fish” into Spanish?
A moment’s reflection shows us that, without some context or a visual image, we can’t be sure of the solution. That “fish”, in the river, is translated as pez, but in the fisherman’s nets, or the cook’s pot, it’s a pescado.
In English a fish is a fish, but in Spanish it really matters (especially to the fish) whether it’s a pez or a pescado. (Above are perch in one or the other circumstance.)
What’s most interesting is not so much the obvious fact that good translation requires contextual information, but rather that Spanish makes a distinction as to whether the fish is free, caught, or cooked, while English lumps these senses into the single word “fish”. Another puzzle: how to translate dedo from Spanish to English? Well, it depends on whether the digits are attached to hands (“fingers”) or feet (“toes”). In this case, unlike fish, it’s English that differentiates, while Spanish lumps.
English also differentiates “party” from “holiday” (in Spanish, both are fiesta), “upbringing” from “education” (both Spanish educación).
But English “to be” lumps ser (essence, as in ser madre, to be a mother) and estar (temporary condition, as in estar ansioso, to be anxious). And where English has “Congratulations!”, Spanish differentiates between ¡Felicitaciones! for, say, winning a prize and ¡Felicidades! on the birth of a child.
A useful lesson: neither English nor Spanish can be said, in any sweeping way, to be more subtle than the other. As in the Inuits’ (Eskimos’) mythical “400 words for snow”, each language has areas where it makes fine distinctions, and others where it lumps senses together into a single word.
Copyright 2013 by Pablo Julián Davis. All Rights Reserved. A version of this essay was originally written for the March 17-23, 2013 issue of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the “Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation” weekly, bilingual column. Pablo Julián Davis (www.interfluency.com) is an ATA Certified Translator as well as a Tennessee Supreme Court Certified Court Interpreter for Spanish.