Category Archives: Bad Spanish

Sustituir versus substitute

This post has a political context, but it is really about Spanish. I promise.

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The big story in New York’s congressional primaries last night was the surprise 57-43 victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Joe Crowley, the 10-term congressman representing the heavily Hispanic 14th district. I don’t live in this district, and wasn’t following the race, but was excited about Ocasio-Cortez’s victory for two reasons.

First, as the daughter of a female politician I am always thrilled to see a woman enter the political arena — and succeed. Second, I love the prominence that Ocasio-Cortez gave to Spanish in her campaign. Her campaign website is fully bilingual — in fact, the first time I visited it, the landing page came up in Spanish — and her slogan (you’ll see it on her website) incorporates the uniquely Spanish ¡. Also, the Spanish on the website is excellent. I only noticed one mistake — and couldn’t resist emailing the campaign about it (see below). Hence this blog post’s assignment to the “Bad Spanish” category as well as to “Verbs.”

My email to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign

While writing this email I was reminded that the Spanish verb sustituir is fundamentally different from its English equivalent, to substitute. In English the direct object of the verb is the substitute item, e.g. I always substitute skim milk for cream. In Spanish the direct object is the item being replaced, e.g. Siempre sustituyo la crema por leche desnatada. In effect, sustituir is best translated as ‘to replace’ rather that ‘to substitute’, as shown here and here.

This is why in my email I described the error on the website as a correct form (coincidió) being replaced by (sustituido por) an incorrect form (coincido) rather than the other way around, i.e., the erroneous form taking the place of the correct form.

I will probably have to stop and think about this every time I attempt to use the verb in the future, as with the verb restar.

Bad Spanish: American tragedy edition

If you’ve been following the news, you know that the Trump administration has adopted a callous policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border, in an attempt to deter immigration. Nearly two thousand children have been separated from their parents over the last six weeks. The children are being held in detention centers or sent to foster homes. This raises the question of how parents can locate their missing children.

Yesterday I had a look at the bilingual flyer “Next Step for Families”, which the Department of Homeland Security is handing out to guide families through this process. To my horror, the Spanish portion of the flyer is full of mistakes such as:

  • not using the correct de possessive (“Departamento de Seguridad Nacional de los Estados Unidos (DHS) Oficina de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza (CBP)” instead of “la Oficina de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza del Departamento de Seguridad Nacional de los Estados Unidos (DHS)”
  • entrar a instead of entrar en
  • missing de and plural s in Dentro las próxima 48 horas
  • admixture of informal  forms within this formal document that otherwise uses ustedvasinfórmaletienes
  • atreves de mandando u email should be a través de mandar un email
  • failure to use military time: 8am a 8pm should be de las 8:00 a las 20:00.

These errors add insult to injury to Spanish-speaking parents. They speak to the carelessness and thoughtlessness with which this policy has been conceived and implemented.

I apologize for bringing politics into my blog, but I care about Spanish-speaking people, not just their language, and also about my own country’s soul.

Bad Latin

Greetings from Cincinnati! I am here for a week grading Spanish AP tests, for the second time (read about the first time here). So far we’re off to a good start, though our team of hundreds of Spanish teachers from all over the country has to get through 190,000 exams. One test at a time…

I’m still thinking about my recent trip to Andalucía. Tonight I’ll share with you a linguistically interesting Latin mistake that I saw at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville, in this charming 1640 painting by Juan del Castillo, San Juan niño servido por dos ángeles (‘John the Baptist, as a child, served by two angels’).

The fun part of the painting is the Latin inscription on the ribbon entwined around baby John’s cross:

Hopefully you can see that this inscription reads Ecce annus dei, which translates as ‘Here is the year of God’. This should be Ecce agnus dei, ‘Here is the lamb of God’, a reference to John’s statement Ecce agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccatum mundi ‘Look, this is the Lamb of God; look, this is he who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

This Latin error is intriguing because agnus disappeared in Spanish as well as in del Castillo’s painting. Cordero, the modern Spanish word for ‘lamb’, comes from a different root: Vulgar Latin cordarius, from cordus ‘late’, i.e. a late-born lamb. In contrast, Portuguese, Catalan, French, and Italian all retained the Latin root — as anho, anyell, agneau, and agnello, respectively — although the primary words for ‘lamb’ in Portuguese and Catalan are cordeiro and xai. (I don’t know where xai came from, nor miel, the Romanian word for ‘lamb’.)

Why eliminate agnus in Spanish? The most likely explanation is that Latin gn and nn both became ñ in Spanish; for example, Latin canna became caña ‘cane’ and Latin ligna became leña ‘firewood’ (see this earlier blog entry for more examples). This means that annus and agnus would both have emerged as año in Spanish once final -us turned into -o, so something had to give. Turning to another root for a new word for ‘lamb’ was a reasonable solution. In contrast, annus emerged with a plain n sound in the other Romance languages, so there was no danger of the two words for ‘year’ and ‘ lamb’ sounding alike.

I wonder, in fact, whether Juan del Castillo’s Latin mistake was somehow related to this history. Would a speaker of a different Romance language been as likely to confuse agnus and annus?

Bad English

I certainly confront a lot of bad Spanish in my professional role as a Spanish teacher. And on this blog, I’ve called out several examples of bad Spanish in street signs, Trader Joe’s packaging, and the like. So it was refreshing when, on my recent trip to Andalucía, I started to notice examples of bad ENGLISH — that is, bad translations from Spanish into English — in signage created with English-speaking tourists in mind. I’ve included some examples below, with explanatory captions.

This “eviction notice” was by far my favorite example of “bad English” on the trip. How about “Please exit 15 minutes before the closing time”? From the Palacio de Viana in Córdoba.

A better translation might be “Danger! Tree work!” Cádiz.

The problem here is the first element in the sign. A good translation might be “One entrance per ticket.”

This was the most intriguing “bad English” sign I saw in Spain. Perhaps the author was trying to translate “Hay pan”: ‘There is bread’, i.e. ‘We have bread.’

A “turno” can indeed be a work shift (e.g. 9-5), but the correct translation here would be a simple cognate, i.e. “Press to take a turn” or perhaps “Press for ticket,” with the turn-taking function of the ticket merely implied. Picture taken at La Canasta bakery in Sevilla, across the street from the cathedral.

What a lovely bit of scrambled syntax! The French translation, in contrast, looks fine to me.

The four “cameras” in this famous tomb at the Carmona necropolis are rooms, not pieces of photo equipment. Indeed, the English word “camera” can be traced to the ‘room’ meaning of the Latin root via the “camera obscura” device.

Bad Spanish?? — high culture edition

Most of my “Bad Spanish” posts pick on the creators of road signs, shopping cart signs, and commercial packaging — folks whom you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be that adept at Spanish. In this post the “Bad Spanish” culprits should definitely know better. They are the folks in Madrid who sell tickets online for the Teatro de la Comedia, the city’s highbrow venue for classical Spanish theater.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently took advantage of a stopover in Madrid on my way home from Andalucía to attend a performance of El burlador de Sevilla, Tirso de Molina’s original (17th century) version of the Don Juan legend. I bought the tickets ahead of time and received them as an email attachment, shown below. As you can see, the ticket states Esta es tu entrada, using the familiar (tu) possessive pronoun, but then presente esta hoja ‘show this page’ using the formal (usted) command form of the verb presentar. Bad Spanish IMHO!

HOWEVER…this tú/usted switch is reminiscent of one I saw in a NYC subway car and blogged about a few months ago, a post that provoked many comments, including two from readers OK with the switch. So to be fair, perhaps it isn’t actually a problem here, and my “Bad Spanish” moniker is perhaps too harsh.

I did contact the ticket-selling agency to ask if the combination of modalities was accidental or deliberate, and received a most courteous and thoughtful reply, which I translate below.

From the perspective of our office (technical support for ticket sales) we don’t know exactly why this document uses the two different treatments. We’ll consult with the National Institute of Dramatic and Musical Arts to see if there exists a memorandum we can make use of that explains not only the types of texts and their distribution in the document, but also an explanation of the intentions of each text.

Personally, the second text (presente) seems more correct to me. It is a request made to the person who has bought the ticket, and it seems to be a basic norm of courtesy to address this person using the usted form. Perhaps in the first text they were aiming for a more impactful message and for this reason chose a different treatment.

From an anecdotal perspective, the use of  and usted is a frequent topic of debate in [Spanish] marketing departments. The use of usted is positively associated with good manners and respect but also with a distance to the client, for which reason it’s common to make use of  in order to attain greater closeness or empathy at the sacrifice of courtesy. In our own www.entradasinaem.es website you can see that we’ve used [informal] suscríbete and únete al inaem, thus linking the informal grammatical treatment with the idea of connecting with our institution.

As a penultimate note, please note the ticket price: 25 euros for sixth-row orchestra seats. ¡Qué ganga! And as a final note, El burlador ROCKED!!! So I got a great night out of it as well as a blog post. 🙂

¿Pollo or gallina?

Georgina Margan, a reader and professional translator from Tucson, Arizona, emailed me to give Trader Joe’s “a pat on the back for their Chicken Asada“, the subject of a “Bad Spanish” post on my blog. Whereas I complained that the product should be called Chicken Asado because pollo ‘chicken’ is masculine, she made the point that ‘chicken’ can also be feminine — and, in fact, that the feminine gender rules when chickens are plural:

The agreement between chicken and asada is correct because chicken means gallina (hen), not only pollo. You see, when chicks are born it’s next to impossible to tell females and males apart…unless you cut them open. Only when they grow up the difference between gallinas (feminine) and pollos (masculine) becomes evident. Pollos turn into gallos (roosters), if they are given the time. When both sexes are together in a flock, they are collectively referred to as las gallinas. This is one of the very, very few instances where a group of both sexes is referred to using the feminine noun.

Wordreference.com and the Real Academia certainly back up Gina’s point about the feminine collective plural gallinas. The former lists three earthy refranes (‘proverbs’):

  • acostarse con las gallinas ‘to go to bed early’ (lit. ‘to go to bed with the chickens’)
  • ¡hasta que meen las gallinas! ‘when pigs fly’ (lit. ‘when chickens piss’)
  • Las gallinas de arriba ensucian a las de abajo ‘the underdog always suffers’ (lit. ‘the chickens on top poop on the chickens below’)

The Real Academia repeats the first two refranes and also references cólera de las gallinas (‘fowl cholera’), a nasty disease which fortunately hasn’t crossed over to humans. Yet.

However, I still think it would be better for TJ to call this product Chicken Asado because the company clearly sees chickens as pollo, not gallina, as shown in the related product names Pollo Asado and Pizza al Pollo Asado.

One of these days I should actually sample one of these products!

 

Say it isn’t so (again), (Trader) Joe’s

I feel really bad picking on Trader Joe’s for a third time. It’s my favorite grocery store! Maybe other stores are just as bad, but I see more mistakes at TJ’s because I go there so often.

Be that as it may…

This morning’s free coffee sample at my local TJ’s was particularly excellent. It was Café Pajaro, an organic, full-bodied, 100% Arabica variety from Guatemala. Amazon reviews describe it as “best coffee ever”, “best TJ brand on the market today”, and “dark and smooth”. The design of the coffee canister respects the variety’s Guatemalan heritage by picturing a quetzal, the indigenous bird whose name comes from Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) and has been extended to the country’s currency.

The Spanish on the label, on the other hand, disrespects this heritage because, although café receives its proper accent, an accent is missing from pájaro (meaning ‘bird’).

I’ve complained about TJ’s cavalier treatment of accent marks in the previous posts linked to above, but this incident is particularly galling*. If they can get it right in one word, why not in the other?

TJ’s has an online comment form if anyone wants to join me in complaining.

*In my previous “Bad Spanish” post I complained that TJ had omitted the accent in auténtica but not in French soirée. I’d have to call that incident “gaul-ing.” (Sorry.)

Say it (still) isn’t so, (Trader) Joe’s

Last year I wrote a blog post taking Trader Joe’s to task for naming one of their products Chicken Asada even though pollo is masculine. I know, life is really too short to care about such things. But I just can’t turn off the language teacher part of my brain!

Today, TJ’s monthly Fearless Flyer arrived, and with it, a new insult to the Spanish language. As you can see from the clip below, they describe their carne asada as autentica — without an accent mark — and bueno rather than buena. To compound the insult they nailed the accent on the French word soirée in the text below.

Trader Joe’s, the United States has more than 37 million residents who speak Spanish as a first language. Can’t you hire one of them to vet your copy?

Bad Spanish — MTA edition

Because Spanish has so many different ways to say ‘you’ — singular and plural, informal and formal — it’s important for Spanish speakers and writers to identify the appropriate version for each person or group they address, and stick with it. I always “ding” my students if they, for example, waver between formal usage (usted) and informal () within a paragraph.

A public service poster currently on display in New York City subways features an error along these lines.

si ves algo

This is a mediocre phone snapshot, I’m afraid, but I hope you can make out, after the large black words Si ves algo, di algo ‘If you see something, say something’, the smaller black words Tome un momento para alertar a un oficial de policía o empleado de la MTA, o llame al 888-NYC-SAFE ‘Take a moment to alert a police officer or MTA employee, or call 888-NYC-SAFE’.

I have put the key verbs in red. The grammatical problem here is that ves ‘see’ and di ‘say’ are  commands, but tome ‘take’ and llame ‘call’ are usted commands. Obviously, the MTA would do better to choose one mode of address and stick to it. Specifically, they should change tome and llame to toma and llama to reflect the informal usage of the ubiquitous Si ves ago, di algo slogan.

New York is full of educated Spanish speakers. Surely some of them work for, or consult with, the Metropolitan Authority (MTA)? As someone who profoundly cares about the Spanish language, I find this kind of bureaucratic carelessness infuriating and even insulting.

While searching for a better image of this poster, I came across a blog post about Si ves algo, di algo by a professional interpreter. He complained that this slogan itself is Bad Spanish. He argues that an English speaker hearing or reading If you see something, say something naturally interprets say something as say something about it, whereas a Spanish speaker does not make the same inference.

My native English intuitions in this case have been blurred by years of exposure to the slogan, and I am not a native Spanish speaker. Therefore it is hard for me to judge whether this interpreter’s nuanced distinction is correct. Readers, help me out here!

Next day: The same sequence of Spanish (more or less) is reproduced on the back of Metro Cards (subway passes), so you can see the writing clearer. Here what bothers me is all the Bad Spanish capitalization (e.g. “Combatir el Terrorismo”).

si ves ago bis

Good salsa, bad Spanish

I just took advantage of Fordham’s spring break to spend a few days at my favorite place, the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Besides yoga, dancing, lifestyle classes, the whirlpool, and lots of reading and napping, I enjoyed some excellent food. However, Tuesday’s lunch buffet line contained a Bad Spanish gem:

salsa

Salsa, of course, means ‘sauce’, so that Salsa sauce means ‘sauce sauce’. This error reminds me of some usages I noticed when attending graduate school at Stanford University, where students swim in Lake Lagunita (‘lake lake’) and drive on The El Camino (‘the the road’).

The salsa, however, was delicious!

[An addendum: my son Aaron helpfully pointed out that the second ingredient, verdes chilies, is a remarkable combination of Bad Spanish and Bad English!]