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Latin American Idiomatic Expressions

James Jope
(Terminology Update, Volume 33, Number 1, 2000, page 13)

Latin American news stories are peppered with colourful proverbial and idiomatic expressions. Such expressions are subject to fashions. Only those which survive to become international clichés are likely to be found in printed dictionaries, and the translations offered there may be inelegant or out of date. For example, if we follow the Harper Collins Spanish Dictionary, we should translate sacar los trapos al sol (literally, "airing their rags in the sun") as "taking their skeletons out of the cupboard"; why not "washing their dirty linen in public"?

The meaning of new expressions which are not in the dictionaries is not always obvious to the uninitiated. Unless these expressions are stored in a constantly updated data bank, one has to consult an eminent Latin American colleague (luckily, we have several of these in the Translation Bureau’s Multilingual Translation Directorate). Even if the meaning is known, it may be difficult to find a translation which does it justice in the target language. Colombian guerrillas have coined the expression pesca milagrosa (literally, "miraculous fishing") for their favourite sport of abducting civilians to hold for ransom. I have not found a catchy phrase for this in English. Perhaps one might restructure the sentence to refer, with quotation marks, to " ’going fishing’ for hostages."

Sometimes an expression is characteristic of a certain region. A Colombian journalist whose Ecuadorian interlocutor said of persistent demonstrators, "A Mahuad están midiendo el aceite" (literally, "They are checking Mahuad’s oil"—i.e., testing his mettle), commented that this was a Colombian expression.

When a writer wishes to caution the reader that a person’s threats should be taken seriously, he may write, No está cañando. "He’s not whistling Dixie" would render the colour nicely, at least in American English.

Some expressions have to be altered just a little in translation in order, as it were, to naturalize them; two examples are dar el visto bueno, which may be rendered as "to give a green light" to some action, and Aún no se puede cantar victoria—"It’s not time to celebrate yet." An event which agarró… todos los guatemaltecos con los calzones en la mano, "caught all Guatemalans with their pants down" (literally, with their pants "in their hands").

For others, there is a completely equivalent, albeit quite different, English idiom. I have translated la gota que rebosará una copa ya casi llena (literally, "the drop which will cause an already nearly full cup to overflow") as "the straw that broke the camel’s back"; and No les tiembla el pulso para matar1 (literally, "Their pulse does not waver when they kill") as "They kill without batting an eyelash."

The constantly changing corpus of proverbial and idiomatic expressions and the need, when translating, to match the right colloquial level and convey the appropriate irony make this a logical subject for computerized data banks and online dictionaries, which can be regularly updated.

Note

  • Back to the note1 The tendency of expressions to vary is exemplified by one Colombian farmer’s variation: "No me tiembla el culo."