San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Transformer: English Puts on Real Magic Show

Spanish may be beautiful, but it cannot compete with English when it comes to doing magic tricks. English, it seems, is a regular Houdini.

This is because English has the capacity to transform – bibbity, bobbity, boo – one part of speech into another part of speech. This saves us a whole lot of “of” and “for” phrases.

This capacity not only allows us to take shortcuts, it also gives us rich vocabulary possibilities and a flexibility not available in Spanish.

Let’s take a look at some of these marvelous English magic tricks and how, for better or for worse, they might translate into Spanish.

First of all, English has the capacity to take a great many nouns and convert them into adjectives, whereas Spanish often must tack on “de” or “para”:

city park                       parque de la ciudad

coffee cup                    taza para café

crime scene                  escena del crimen

love song                      canción de amor

magic show                  espectáculo de magia

Sometimes, the two words are written as one; nevertheless, it is the same operation:

fingernail                       uña de la mano

sunglasses                     anteojos para el sol

To be sure, in some cases, Spanish can be just as brief or briefer than English:

cell phone                     teléfono cellular

police car                     patrulla

rainstorm                      aguacero

television                      set televisor

And since a gerund, such as “sewing,” which is a verb form, as in “I am sewing,” can also act as a noun, as in “I like sewing,” it follows that it can also be transformed into an adjective in the same way:

sewing machine             máquina de coser

sleeping bag                  slipin

reading light                  luz para leer

And it doesn’t end there. English can also

combine a noun with a verb, present participle

or past participle to create a more precise

verb or participle. These are especially

inclined to be written as one word:

brainwash                     lavar el cerebro

handmade                     hecho a mano

sunbathe                       tomar el sol

sunburned                     quemado por el sol

troubleshoot                 resolver problemas

water skiing                  esquí acuático

windswept                    barrido por el viento

In all fairness, Spanish sometimes performs a similar trick by combining a verb and a noun to create another noun:

Quitaesmalte               polish remover (“it removes enamel”)

Tomacorriente                       electrical outlet (“it takes current”)

In yet another maneuver, English puts an adjective in front of a noun, adds -ed to the noun, as if it were a verb, then converts the whole thing into a participle that acts as an adjective! You don’t believe me? Try these:

dark-skinned                moreno

dim-witted                    lerdo

kindhearted                  de buen corazón

Then, English can put a noun in front of an adjective and create a more specific adjective:

boy-crazy                     loca para los muchachos

dust-free                       libre de polvo

nationwide                    por toda la nación

street-smart                  astuto

top-heavy                     más pesado arriba que abajo

And if you think that English can never combine two verbs, then you’ve never learned how to blow-dry your hair, tie-dye a shirt or hang glide.

Finally, the most remarkable thing about all this is that these transformations can be used to carry out even more transformations.

For example, English can take the nounnoun combo out of which we created an adjective and noun and use it to create yet another adjective, as long as we connect the extended adjective with hyphens:

cell-phone call llamada de teléfonocelular

city-park bench            banca del parque de la ciudad

community-                  clase del colegio

college             class universitario

sewing-machine            fábrica de máquinas

factory             de coser

And, would you believe, it can go even further:

community-college-class schedule         horario de clases del colegio universitario

fingernail-polish remover                       quitaesmalte para uñas

sewing-machine-factory strike   huelga de la fábrica de máquinas de coser

And though it can make for rather unclear English, if we really want to push it:

community-college-class-schedule error            error en el horario de clases del colegio


fingernail-polish-remover intoxication     intoxicación de quitaesmalte para uñas

sewing-machine-factory-strike update   actualización de la huelga de la fábrica de

máquinas de coser

Would you like to try for six?

community-college-class-schedule-error correction       corrección del error en el horario de clases del colegio universitario

Then, when all else fails and with more than a bit of poetic license, English allows us simply to invent transformations. Take, for example, a line in a book I am reading: “And the fishing skiffs water-bugged it over the bay.” Here, the writer has done something impossible in Spanish by taking an expression where the two nouns make one noun (water bug), then converting them into a verb. In Spanish, this would have to be translated as something like: “Los botes de pesca rozaron la superficie de la bahía como insectos acuáticos.”

Now that’s magic.


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