Photo courtesy of the Fundación Carpe Diem
I can’t help it.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.
There are Spanish expressions that sometimes fit the bill better than anything in English.
That’s just how it is when you speak two languages. That’s how your brain works.
Sometimes you find the right word in one language. Sometimes it comes to you in another.
You can take a word from one language, and turn it into a new word in the other language. Jacket becomes chaqueta. Saber becomes savvy. Truck becomes troca1. Vaquero becomes buckaroo.
Sometimes a joke is funnier when you tell it in one language, and deliver the punchline in another.
Call it Spanglish, Franglais or whatever you want. I call it, selection of the fittest—word, that is. It's like you have a little bridge in your brain that moves between one language bin and the other. I can only imagine what life is like for polyglots.
Speaking a second language doesn’t mean you substitute the word in your native language for the word with the same meaning in another language. You don't substitute one symbol for another. It's not that easy. It's not a straight exchange.
Words are loaded. They carry unique meanings that bear the weight of history, culture, geography, and a specific time and place.
Anyone who has had to translate from one language to another will tell you that it isn’t wise to translate literally. You’ll have more success if you find just the right words in the other language that will convey, more or less, what you are trying to express, and how you might express it in your native tongue.
For example, in English I might say, “Yikes, it’s hot today,” but in Spanish I might say, “¡Santo cielo! ¡Que calor hace! Holy heavens, it’s hot today!
According to Dictionary.com, “yikes” dates back to 1770 and likely derives from the fox-hunting call “yoikes.” It is a most decidedly English term from a specific time and place, but one that has evolved and is used to this day, even by Yanks who have never ridden, hunted or seen a fox in the wild.
In English, I might say, “What the hell is going on here?” In Spanish I might say, “¿Que carajo esta pasando aqui?”
Carajo2 is the Spanish term for the “lookout nest” in a ship. Spain once ruled the seas, and there was no greater hell for Spanish sailors than to be trapped in a galleon’s lookout on stormy seas. The queasiness and seasickness they associated with the task has turned the very term for the lookout into a curse word. Many native Spanish speakers have forgotten the word's original meaning.
My mother and grandmother pulled out Spanish dichos or sayings to fit every occasion, and, for some reason, they always sounded wiser, older and more ominous than English proverbs.
As far as I can tell, nothing can scare you straight faster than a Spanish ghost story like La Llorona3 or a proverb like:
Amor de lejos, amor de pendejos. Love from afar is the love of fools.
Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres. Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are. (Birds of a feather flock together.)
El ladrón juzga por su propia condición. A thief believes everyone steals.
One of my favorite Spanish dichos of all time is, “Cada cabeza es un mundo.”
Every head is a world.
I first heard these words while I was living in South America in the 1980s. A friend smacked his head and uttered them when he heard about something that someone else had done, and it made no sense to him whatsoever.
“Pues, cada cabeza es un mundo,” he said. “Well, every head is a world.”
Because I’m a visual thinker, I immediately imagined people walking around with globes for heads, with ideas swirling around in the upper stratosphere of their minds.
Think about it. Every head is a world. Every single human head on our planet is unique. No two are alike. Everyone’s life experience is unique. Everyone has their own thoughts, and thought processes. Everyone has singular prisms through which they filter reality, and everything that happens around them.
Those differences are what make us individuals.
Cada cabeza es un mundo reminds me not to judge people by what I see on the outside. It reminds me not to project my limitations onto others. It reminds me to appreciate the multitude of ideas that abound in the universe, and not to assume that everyone can relate to me and my personal experiences.
When I hear people speak from their life experiences, and I can't really relate, the expression forces me to step back and look for universal truths, to try to understand where people are coming from.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, but one that is well worth the effort.
Because, cada cabeza es un mundo.
Every head is a world.
© Essay by Deborah Méndez Wilson, 2012. All rights reserved.
1 I am well aware that "troca" is part of the lexicon that has arisen on the U.S.-Mexico border. The proper word for "truck" in Spanish is camion or camioneta (pickup truck).
2A reader challenged my definition of the origin of the Spanish word "carajo." In this blog post, I used a definition I got from UrbanDictionary.com, and Wiki.Answers.com. The reader says the Royal Spanish Academy, Spain's official language keeper, does not recognize the definition of carajo to mean a "lookout nest" in a ship. I can't say with certainty that "carajo" does or does not mean "lookout nest," but I can say from personal experience that it is a word that is plugged into sentences to mean a lot of different things, and that the word is on the vulgar side. In a lot of ways, it is very similar to the eff word in English. Let's put it this way: Had George Carlin spoken Spanish, he would have had a field day with carajo.
3 La Llorona is the mythical "weeping woman" whose ghost wanders Mexico and the Southwest searching for the children she drowned in a river after her Spanish lover spurned her.
Below: YouTube video of Mexican American singer Lila Downs singing "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" or "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás," written by Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farres. It became a worldwide hit in 1947.