(Published March 22, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)
This week during an English class I helped a student of mine, employed in the safety and health department of a large manufacturing company out of El Salto, translate an accident report from Spanish to English. A lab worker suffered a minor laceration to her palm caused by a broken flask. Although my students at that company would rather be tinkering with lab equipment than pouring over foreign languages, I gave them free range and recommended they follow the original Spanish text faithfully to translate. That is, 'especificacion' is 'specification,' 'laboratory' is 'laboratorio,' 'evaluation' is 'evaluacion,' and so on. And it worked well, at least in that scientific context.
But things are not always as they seem, as Spanish students learn on day one when the teacher explains we do not 'atender' la clase --as we certainly 'attend' class in English-- we 'asistir' it. Then what is it to 'assist' my mother with her housework, we ask. 'Asistir' similarly means 'to help': la asisto a mi mama con los deberes.
The same goes for 'discutir,' which in Spanish only means 'to discuss' if it's in the euphemistic sense your parents used when they wouldn't admit they were arguing. That's why my students gave me a funny look when I suggested we have a discussion about Helen Keller's biography, as if I assumed it should provoke a heated debate. In Spanish, instead, we would 'platicar' or 'conversar,' and leave 'la discusion' to politicians and landladies.
'Pretender' is another deceptive word whose meaning has little to do with what one might think in English: 'pretend,' as in to act in an untruthful way, is more accurately 'fingir' in Spanish. To 'pretender' is to express intention, effort, and or hope toward something planned. Pretendo ser actriz would translate roughly to I'm aiming to (or aspiring to) be an actress.
There are look-a-like words too that don't alter so drastically in meaning as pretender and pretend, more like a small tweak. Take investigar, for example. It means simply 'to investigate,' just as you'd think, only used more commonly as English-speakers use 'look into' and 'find out.' When I first came to Guadalajara and went apartment hunting, I visited a promising one found in an ad; later that day a friend sent me the text "Que investigaste?" Thinking for a moment like a detective, I wondered what it was exactly I had investigated, until I realized she simply wanted to know what I found out about the place.
I also began to wonder why Mexicans so often perceive circumstances as 'desperate.' That is, 'desesperado,' which I overhear in rather unremarkable situations that don't seem to justify such dramatic estimation.
A student once remarked that I was 'desesperada' with him, and my immediate thought was, what have I done? I mean, he's not really getting the present perfect, but I'm not to the point of desperation! 'Desesperar,' like it would seem in English, does mean 'to drive to the point of despair,' but usually it's used to express mere frustration or exasperation.
The grand prize of confusing translation would go to 'decepcionar.' One might assume the noun 'decepcion' would mean what it does in English: deceipt, fraud, falsehood, etc. But in Spanish it means what one might feel after being deceived: 'disappointment.' The verb that actually means 'to deceive' is 'engañar.' So, tu me decepcionaste means you disappointed me, and tu me engañaste means you deceived me. Whew!
And the list goes on. The early days of my Spanish education are gone, when I was apt to twist the pronunciation of an English word, maybe add an 'a' or 'o' to the butt of it, and hoping it would slide (it still does, now and then…). But now, I pretendo ser more careful with my word choice, lest I be engañada.