Tag Archives: Juan Manuel de Prada

Does “andurriales” have an English equivalent?

In my current research I’m revisiting the topic of pluralia tantum: words that are normally used in their plural form, even when no plural meaning is intended. Two good examples in Spanish are vacaciones ‘vacation’ and tardes in Buenas tardes ‘Good afternoon’.  In particular, I’ve been plowing through the list of pluralia tantum in the Real Academia’s Nueva Gramática de la lengua española (a lot of scholarly bang for your buck at $14.75). There I came across andurriales, which means parajes extraviados o fuera de camino ‘isolated or out-of-the-way places’.

I love the fact that there is, I think, no exact equivalent for this word in English. (Let me know if you think of one!) Andurriales doesn’t have boondocks’s negative connotation. In fact, this thoughtful exploration of the word on a Spanish vocabulary blog, La llave del mundo “The key to the world”, expands the definition poetiically as follows: esos paseos fuera de las rutas señaladas, que sugieren un paraje remoto, poco transitado, apartado, ignoto y cautivador… ‘those unmarked routes that suggest a remote, unknown, rarely visited, and captivating place.’

To my delight, the Llave bloggers illustrated the word with a passage from El séptimo velo, Juan Manuel de Prada’s prize-winning novel, which I wrote about a few times more than a year ago (most recently here). El séptimo velo is, as I described then, packed to the gills with recondite vocabulary, so it’s appropriate that andurriales should show up in it. The specific passage cited is from the dramatic description of the heroine’s family’s escape, over the Pyrenees, from Civil War-torn Spain: Sacando fuerzas de flaqueza, Estrada se internó por andurriales sólo frecuentados por las cabras, porteando a una Catalina exánime “Tapping his last reserves of strength, Estrada sought out andurriales barely used even by goats, carrying the exhausted Catalina.”

Every pair of languages undoubtedly has bountiful examples of such untranslatable vocabulary. Here’s a pretty good list for Spanish versus English. I take issue, though, with pena ajena ‘shame on someone else’s behalf’ (since it’s a phrase, not a word) and estrenar, since English has debut, and I wish they’d included anoche ‘last night’ along with anteayer ‘the day before yesterday’ (it was interesting, though, to learn the variant antier). The word tuerto ‘one-eyed’ is part of a larger set of words for disabilities that I discussed here.

My favorite example of an English word that doesn’t translate directly into Spanish is borrow, whose awkward Spanish equivalent is the phrasal pedir prestado ‘to ask for as a loan’. It’s remarkable that Spanish lacks a word for this everyday action.

Here is a longer list of words from a variety of languages that don’t translate well into English — but perhaps should.

A final post on El séptimo velo

After a hiatus of several weeks, I recently took advantage of a cross-Atlantic flight to finally finish Juan Manuel de Prada’s novel El séptimo velo. It has been a tough but exciting slog. I’d recommend the book to an ambitious non-native speaker, or to a native speaker interested in a variety of topics: World War II (especially the German occupation of Paris), mental illness, circuses, or love.

In an earlier post I dissected a single metaphor used in El séptimo veloMore recently I went into a potentially embarrassing level of detail about the book’s challenging vocabulary. It was heartening to hear back from native speakers that some of the words that stumped me were unfamiliar to them as well, or at least struck them as antiguocultorural/rústico, or literario. Several other words that I didn’t know are, in fact, reasonably common, and definitely belong on my “need to know” list. One never stops learning.

Given my linguistic fascination with El séptimo velo, I was intrigued to read a blistering online review of it by Sergio Parra (in Papel en blanco) that took particular issue with the novel’s language. While Parra acknowledges that some of de Prada’s prose “shows stylistic mastery”, he describes the book as, variously:

  • mucha letra y poca historia (“many words but little to say”)
  • 650 páginas que habrían podido resumirse en 200 (“650 pages that should be 200”)
  • que incurre en …el exceso de metáforas, en el exceso de frases preciosistas trufadas de subordinadas…(“over-indulging in metaphors and gaudy sentences crammed with subordinate clauses”)
  • pesada, lenta, morosa, meándrica, superflua, barroca (“heavy, slow, morose, meandering, superfluous, and baroque”)

Personally, I enjoyed de Prada’s almost joyfully complicated prose. A prime example is a 3 1/2-page-long tour-de-force paragraph toward the end of the novel (pp. 583-6 of the Planeta edition). In alternating sentences, it simultaneously narrates both (i) a passionate bout of lovemaking between two main characters, and (ii) a weeks-long chain of events involving the French Resistance, triggered by one of the lovers’ revealing a secret to the other at the beginning of the scene. For me, it worked.

De Prada uses one of the novel’s secondary characters to gently mock his own writing style. His description of the psychologist/hypnotist Portabella is worth quoting at length (p. 518):

Portabella was a virtuoso of conversation, or, more specifically, of monologue. He talked as if speech were as necessary to him as breathing or eating; he spoke, moreover, with extreme precision, using an extensive vocabulary and constructing sentences with satisfaction and accuracy, as befits someone who for professional purposes is familiar with the spell-binding power of language [a reference to hypnotism or to writing]. He never used a common word if an erudite alternative was available; he never used a vague word if he could find a more exact one. It wasn’t a torrent that flowed from his lips, since there was nothing hurried or confused about his speech, but rather a wide river flowing down a valley. It flowed with a tranquil, yet constant force that carried away all everything that opposed its progress.

It’s even better in Spanish! Check it out if you can.

Spanish vocabulary in El séptimo velo

For the last several weeks I’ve been making slow but steady progress through Juan Manuel de Prada’s towering novel El séptimo velo. Like this blog, it’s been taking back seat to my teaching. As described in an earlier post, El séptimo velo is a romantic novel set mostly in post-war France and contemporary Spain. I learned of it from a reading list distributed by a professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

This novel is unbelievably rich in vocabulary. My Spanish is excellent, I think, good enough to tear through a sophisticated thriller like Guillermo Martínez’s La muerte lenta de Luciana B. in a matter of hours, and in a typical book I rarely find more than two or three new words on a page. De Prada’s Spanish came as such a shock that I decided, as an intellectual exercise, to (i) write down all the new words I encountered on a random page, (ii) record what I thought they meant, and why (iii) look up their actual meanings, and (iv) blog the results. The random page was p. 315 of the 2008 Harper Collins Planeta paperback.

This humbling experiment turned up 30 new words on one page!!! — of which I correctly interpreted more than half. The first part of this statistic gave me second thoughts — and even third and fourth — about writing this post. Revealing how much Spanish vocabulary I still don’t know, after years of studying and teaching the language, is somewhat embarrassing. But I decided to go ahead because vocabulary, and how we learn it, is such an important topic.

For one thing, while English speakers may be aware that English has an enormous lexicon — over 450,000 words, according to David Crystal — they may not realize the extent of the Spanish lexicon. The Real Academia‘s dictionary has about 162,000 words, almost 100,000 more than an educated person learns in a lifetime (again according to Crystal). The Spanish lexicon combines a native Latin base with substantial borrowings, mostly from Arabic, Germanic, other Romance languages, Latin (again) and Greek, English, and native American languages.

Second, since I’m always telling my students to use context, cognates, and familiar Spanish vocabulary to deduce meanings, I was curious to see how far this actually takes a reader (i.e., me). The use of context in particular is of broad linguistic interest, because it enables babies to learn language, and adults to communicate under difficult conditions, for example over a poor telephone connection.

Finally, I’ve become fascinated with de Prada’s Spanish. His vocabulary is not only immense but also erudite.  Elsewhere in the book, for example, he uses preñada, instead of embarazada, to mean “pregnant”. I would love to hear how native Spanish readers of this blog respond to the vocabulary listed below. How obscure is it?

The table below details the fruits of my analysis. As a summary:

  • The only word I couldn’t even guess at was chabola.
  • I misinterpreted several words: troncho, deje, forzar (in a weird context), barullo, ráfaga, metralla and ametrralladaatronar, corduraquincalleros, and zalamero. Of these, I came closest on deje (“accent”), recognizing its connection with dejar, and with barullo “racket, din” — I guessed “crowd”. The most personally galling were metralla and ametrrallada, because I’ve tried to memorize the word ametralladora (“machine gun”) several times. I’ve also run into zalamero and may even have flash-carded it a few years ago.
  • I correctly deduced the general semantic category of several words from context, like a good Spanish student (or baby). For example, I assumed that berza “cabbage” was a kind of food, and batahola “racket, din” a kind of noise. Other words in this category were chalánproleenjutoestrépitoapelmazado, esportillero, and arrumbadero. The last two were quite obscure. Esportillero wasn’t in wordreference.com, though I found it in the RAE. Arrumbadero was in neither. I “looked it up” by consulting the friendly and expert participants in the Word Reference Spanish vocabulary forum.
  • I figured out several meanings thanks to English cognates and my existing Spanish vocabulary. For example, English amble and ambulatory gave me deambuló, and Spanish hormiga “ant” gave me hormiguear “to swarm”.
  • Context made estraperlo and traquateo absolutely clear. Onomatopoeia also helped with the latter.

Séptimo velo