What the Dickens Does It Mean?

April 1, 2005

ONE fascinatingaspect of foreign languagesis the existenceof words that have noadequate translation inone’s own language,or that seem to havemore than one meaningto a non-nativespeaker versus a spectrumof meaning to anative speaker.I am not referringto meanings that areobviously connected.The words “elk” and “moose” in Englishare expressed by a single word in Spanish:alce. On the other hand, the Spanish wordscaracol (curled shell) and concha (flat shell)are, to us, both just shells.I am referring to words such as the verb“to get” in English. One can get tired, get ajob, get a meaning, get over a problem, gethome, get to travel and more. Each one ofthese expressions has to be translated with adifferent verb in Spanish. For a Spanishspeaker, “get” ends up having 15 disparatemeanings. But for us native English speakers,is that our perception of the word? Ordo we see it as a range of meaning based onthe concept of acquisition and possession?Though not as extensive as “get,” a similarword in Spanish is the word maña and itscorresponding adjective mañoso. Accordingto the American Heritage Larousse SpanishDictionary, maña means, “skill, dexterity,craftiness, guile, bad habit, vice.” Andmañoso means “skillful, clever, crafty, cunning,having bad habits.” It may seem to usthat skill, guile and bad habits are three dissimilarmatters. We perceive that, like thenoun “bat” in English, the adjective mañosohas more than one meaning. But how doSpanish speakers perceive it? Let’s take alook at some of the ways it is used.1. Nuestra perra es una mañosa querehusa comer su comida, esperando que ledemos comida de la mesa. (Our dog is amañosa who refuses to eat her food in hopeswe’ll give her food from the table.)2. Las industrias ponen sus fábricas enCosta Rica porque los Ticos son muymañosos. (Industries put their factories inCosta Rica because Ticos are very mañosos.)3. Este mañoso aparato de discos compactosno quiere leer copias. (This mañosoCD player won’t play copies.)4. ¡Qué rico! Mi mamá es una mañosapara hacer pasteles. (How delicious! Mymom is really mañosa for making pastry.)In the first sentence, the word in questionmight mean “tricky” or “spoiled.” Insentence number three, it can also mean“tricky.” Or, in both, the word might betranslated as “quirky.” In contrast, in sentencestwo and four, it means “skillful.”Thus, it appears the word has at least twodistinct meanings.However, if we don’t try to translate theword in each case into English, there isanother way to look at it – the way LatinAmerican Spanish speakers look at it. In allfour cases, for better or for worse, somethingout of the ordinary is happening;someone or something is doing somethingextraordinary. The dog knows how tomanipulate her owners. Ticos are especiallygood at factory work. The CD player doesn’twant to do anything illegal. My momcooks extraordinary food.Looking at it this way, there is, as with“to get,” a common base of meaning. And,just as we can’t translate “get” into Spanishwithout using words that have nothing incommon, we can’t translate mañoso intoEnglish without using words that have nothingin common.My, aren’t languages mañosos, though?

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