On Poetry and Culture Shock

Lost in translation: English to Spanish

Some words don’t translate well at all from English to Spanish: 

  • Cute: Argh! “He’s not cute, he’s attractive”. “It’s a cute movie”. “You don’t want to look cute, you want to look pretty”. How do I translate “beautiful in the way that babies and Orlando Bloom are, soft, a girly kind of beauty” without saying “lindo”?
  • Cheesy and tacky: In Spanish both words are translated as “hortera” and sometimes as “cursi” (rough equivalent of “cutesy”). I can translate the words, but I cannot translate in what way they mean different things.
  • Afterglow is sunset light, once the sun is completely under the horizon: the glow after sunset. That’s what the dictionary says. But the first time I heard that word, it was used to mean the quiet but intense pleasure after something good has already finished. Something sensual. Find me a convincing translation and you’ll have my eternal gratitude (regusto no me sirve).
  • Gender, especially Gender Studies. It isn’t considered completely correct to use the word “género” to mean “the social construction of sex”. I feel comfortable doing the shift Gender Studies/Estudios de Género, but the problem is that no one understands me when I say I’m working on Estudios de Género and what I do is definitely not a study of sexuality. So I know what I mean, but hardly anyone else does. Besides, most people who know the term identify it with Women’s Studies or with Feminist Theory, and that’s not the whole story.
  • Queer or queerness: one of these days Spanish will have one short descriptive word, not an insult, to mean “not heterosexual, including those people who are not even sure of their orientation”.
  • Soft. Surprised to find such a common word? Spanish has a word for “pliable, not hard” (blando) and another one for “smooth, not rough” (suave). Poetry in English sometimes benefits from the ambiguity of the double meaning and I can’t translate that.
  • I don’t like to generalise, but it says a lot about the Spanish tendency to exaggerate that we don’t have a word, not even a phrase, to say “understatement”. 

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