Monthly Archives: April 2016

Spanish translations of Harry Potter

Here is a fun and obsessive blog post about regional variation in different Spanish translations of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone in the American version).

Click on image to reach the blog post

The author, “Urbanabydos”, analyzes 24 different Spanish editions of the book, dividing them on linguistic grounds into European, Southern Cone (Argentina +), and other Latin American.

Differences in subject pronoun usage are an obvious feature to look for. Surprisingly, Urbanabydos doesn’t mention voseo. However, for ustedes (Europe) versus vosotros (Latin America, including Southern Cone), (s)he gives the example of Harry’s reaction when he finds out his aunt and uncle already knew about Hogwarts: ¿Ustedes sabían? versus ¿Vosotros lo sabíais?

Besides ustedes/vosotros, the author identifies four phrases with consistent regional treatments:

In later editions, “tawny owl” changed to búho pardo in the Southern Cone and Europe editions. Urbanabydos’s post analyzes the difference between lechuza and búho and why the word choice may have evolved over time.

My favorite part of the post explains that early editions translated ‘The mirror of Erised’ as El espejo de Erised, but that as editors (and the general public) figured out that Erised was Desire read backwards, this changed to El espejo de Oesed (Deseo backwards).

A must-read for fans of both Spanish and Harry Potter!

Using the two imperfect subjunctives

I always keep an eye out for nice examples of Spanish prose that exploit the two versions of the imperfect subjunctive. (Previous posts on this topic are here and here.) I came across one recently in Cuatro días de enero, a police procedural by Jordi Sierra I Fabra set in Barcelona just before Franco’s forces take the city on January 26, 1939. Early in the novel the protagonist, a world-weary police detective, and his wife, who is dying from cancer (probably a metaphor for the death of the city), are talking about the state of the war. The author describes the detective’s feelings:

  • A veces se sentía atrapado, hiciera lo que hiciese, dijera lo que dijese.

This sounds much better, to my ears, than the English equivalent: Sometimes he felt trapped, no matter what he did or said.

I knew that fuera lo que fuese is a standard saying (‘be that as it may’) but was curious about hiciera lo que hiciese and dijera lo que dijese. A Google search turned up several more examples of these two verb pairs used together, and some that added a third:

  • Aquella desesperación cada noche ante la inminencia de lo que iba a ocurrir, aquella fatalidad ante el hecho de que hiciera lo que hiciese, dijera lo que dijese, o callara lo que callase (Cuentos desde mi rincón)
  • …la férrea y negativa postura de la señorita en cuestión de no querer acostarse con él, pasara lo que pasase, dijera lo que dijese e hiciera lo que hiciese (La codorniz de Enrique Herreros)

I love the sound of these verb pairs, and I guess these authors do, too.

When does a pez become a pescado?

One of my favorite “fun facts” about Spanish is that it has two words for ‘fish’: pez, for a live fish, and pescado, for fish that is food, as in a restaurant or a fish market. Pez is a direct descendant of the Latin word pisces. Pescado is the past participle of the verb pescar ‘to fish’, and literally means ‘fished’; it’s fish that has been fished, or caught.

I was reminded of this word pair yesterday, when my husband and I had breakfast in Spanish Harlem, at a corner taquería, or centro de comida, called El Águila. The wall near our table was decorated with reproductions of Mexican state seals and lotería cards, which are used in a variety of bingo-like games as well as fortune-telling. Two of the lotería images caught my eye: “El Negrito” (next-to-last row, furthest right), because it’s so dated, and also “El Pescado” (bottom row, second from left, also see close-up).

El Águila

Since the fish is still in the water, and is still alive, I thought it would be labeled pez. Instead, the lotería card apparently captures the “decisive moment” in which the poor pez becomes a pescado. Once it’s on the hook, there is no turning back.

The taquería’s name, El Águila, is itself of linguistic interest. First, águila is one of those feminine Spanish nouns that take a masculine article (el) in the singular to stop the a of the feminine article la from blending in with the initial a of the noun, as it does (legitimately) in Italian words like l’amica (from la amica). Second, the taquería itself and its website are missing the accent mark in Águila. This illustrates the common, though technically incorrect, tendency to omit accent marks on capital letters.



Triple pronoun positions in Spanish

I recently ran into a sentence with one conjugated verb and two infinitives.


But seriously…it was a sentence like Quiero poder hablarlo ‘I want to be able to speak it’, where ‘it’ referred to, perhaps, the Spanish language. I don’t remember whether this sentence came up in a student’s paper or was just something I was working out in my head. At any rate, I was curious to find out how many possible positions there were for the lo pronoun in this sentence.

As all of you know if you’ve tangled with Spanish grammar, an object pronoun like lo can come either before a conjugated verb or after an infinitive. (These are the main two rules, though there are others.) So in a sentence with two verbs, of which the first is conjugated, the pronoun can either precede the first (Lo quiero hablar) or follow the second (Quiero hablarlo). Both are equally valid, and Spanish speakers freely alternate between them.

I wondered: in a sentence with one conjugated verb and two infinitives, are there three possible pronoun positions?

  1. Lo quiero poder hablar
  2. Quiero poderlo hablar
  3. Quiero poder hablarlo

I posed this question on two of my favorite forums, /r/Spanish and WordReference, and the answer was a resounding : all three positions are legitimate.

How cool is that?

Spanishlinguist turns 100,000!

I started this blog just over three years ago, with a post on March 16, 2013 on the accidental role of piracy in establishing Latin American dialect geography. Since then, my readership has climbed fairly steadily, from 1000+ page views per month in 2013 to 3000+ or even 4000+ today. The blog hit the landmark of 100,000 total page views a few days ago. Of course, a “page view” can mean that someone stumbled across my blog and quickly bailed…but still, it’s a nice number.

The blog’s ten most popular posts are listed below, each with its total page views. I had completely forgotten about the “surprising cognates” post (#10 on the list), and got a kick out of rereading it.

The top 5 Spanish-speaking countries More stats 11,452
Pepe and Paco — 2 mysterious Spanish nicknames More stats 7,017
Spanish vowels vs. English vowels More stats 3,861
Pity the Spanish speaker who can’t roll his r’s More stats 3,394
Spanish vs. Catalan vocabulary More stats 2,851
The lopsided mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese More stats 2,632
Spanish clothing project More stats 1,861
Speaking Spanish in New Mexico — NOT! More stats 1,780
Quixote y Quijote More stats 1,461
Some surprising Spanish-English cognates More stats 1,097

Thank you for reading my blog — and an extra-big gracias to those of you who have written to share your own thoughts and ideas. I hope to earn your continued attention in the future.

An update, an anecdote, an apology

The most-viewed post on this blog, with more than 11,000 page views, is “The top 5 Spanish-speaking countries”. I wrote this post almost three years ago. Many visitors find it via Google (or other) searches such as “top 5 Spanish speaking countries”, “best Spanish speaking countries”, or even “coolest Spanish speaking countries”.

I based the post on the language statistics in the CIA World Factbook. This is an excellent website, rich in content and also user-friendly. As an American taxpayer I’ve been funding the CIA for years, and I liked the idea of getting some non-lethal return on my (involuntary) investment.

The post reported that, according to the Factbook, there are more first-language speakers of Spanish in the United States than in Spain, because more than a quarter of Spaniards speak Catalan, Galician, or Basque as a first language instead of Castilian Spanish. In the years after writing this post, I came to doubt this “fact”. Both the 2001 national census of Spain (the most recent census to ask about languages) and the Ethnologue database give lower numbers for the non-Castilian languages. Ethnologue, a widely cited resource, reports that 8% of the population speaks Catalan as a first language, 5% Galician, and 1% Basque.

Earlier this year, while editing the relevant chapter of my book, I decided to get to the bottom of this discrepancy. I emailed the CIA, using the contact information on the Factbook website, and asked why their numbers for non-Castilian languages were so high. I heard back promptly from Molly Hale (the “public voice of the CIA”, not the Pokemon character):

Thank you for your interest in The World Factbook.  Our information on languages in Spain is, unfortunately, extremely dated.  We are currently in the midst of a long-term project to update our fields on language, religion, and ethnic groups, but have not yet found any new language data for Spain.  Spain’s last two national censuses in 2011 and 2001* did not ask a question about primary language used at home or mother tongue, and we have not found another source of information.  Ethnologue, as you mention, has some estimates for each language used in Spain, but they are based on different sources, dates of information, and methodologies, which complicates using them together to construct an overall breakdown.  Nevertheless, this may be your best option, if a better data source cannot be found.

*No, there is 2001 census data (see link above)

Accordingly I have now updated my 2013 post using the Ethnologue data. I apologize for leaving the inaccurate data up for so long. The moral of the story? Never trust the CIA!