Argentine Diarrhea - Lost In TranslationMonday, September 30, 2013
|Cristina Fernández de Kirchner - President República Argentina|
For years I have formulated in my mind a pet theory on why countries like France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Latin American countries and few countries that speak romance languages in Eastern Europe invariably lost the military conflicts they began.
It has all to do with the very fact that these countries all speak languages that had their origin in ancient Rome. Ultimately those ancient Romans lost out to civilizations (or entities that lacked civilization) that spoke un-romantic verbiage.
The romance languages all feature the Subjunctive Mood. It is a mood of uncertainty. Americans and even the British avoid the infrequent appearance of it. Thus, “I wish I were in Dixie (as I am certainly not whoever might be singing that line),” becomes “I wish I was in Dixie.” That Future Subjunctive is excised and things become a predictable as a constant present. That uncertain future is transformed most comfortably into one of definite possibility.
The Subjunctive Mood is one of uncertainty, and the most uncertain of all uncertainties is the Future Subjunctive.
Consider, “When in Rome do as Romans do.” In Spanish it is far more complex. The very idea of anybody finding themselves in Rome is left as indefinite possibility. En el país que fueres has lo que vieres.” It virtually defies translation but is means something like, “In that country that you might just find yourself in some future you may perhaps do as others do might do.”
Successful generals fronting successful armies fight on certainties. If possible these generals choose their place of battle and twist the situation to favour them. You cannot run an army on just possibilities.
There is the Mexican joke of the general that sends a soldier to the front to report on the numbers of the attacking army. The soldier returns and says, “My general I saw about a thousand and one of the enemy.” The general, incredulous at the lack of logic in his soldier’s statement, orders him to clarify it. “Mi general,” the soldier replies, “I saw one attacking soldier and perhaps a thousand behind him.”
And so, the French had their Waterloo and their 5 de Mayo against the Mexicans at Puebla. The less said about the Italians in WWII the better.
Of late I have been giving more thought to the vagaries of language and how language affects us without our complete awareness.
Consider someone like CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewing President Barrack H. Obama. They might sit close to each other perhaps with the small interruption of a coffee table. Blitzer would address Obama as Mr. President and might just continue with a, “What did you mean bb… in your last statement, sir.” The sir would be marked.
Consider that in English you might say:
Please come here, sir.
Will you please step this way, madam?
Or if a friend you might say: Hey! Come over here!
It is difficult to conceive rudeness or familiarity in those statements unless you shouted them or simply said, “Get your ass over here!”
In Spanish like in French we have two options:
There is the formal:
Or the informal
The situation becomes more complex in Argentine Spanish (perhaps borrowed from Italian immigrants) which gives you the further choice of:
Venite para acá.
The informality of that third method of ordering people around has a sense of intimacy unknown (and what would I know of this if nothing) in other languages).
|With Jorge Rial|
In English with the advent of the World Wide Web we tried to give the impression of intimacy by stating: “Visit us at our website.” Or “Browse our website.” The word visit seems to inject an intimacy impossible to achieve in even in the most prurient of porn sites. We cannot visit because we are alone.
All the above is my introduction to the shock of finding myself watching a TV interview in which Jorge Rial and Hernan Brienza, journalists, separately talked at length in two-part interviews (separated by a week in which a cliffhanger question by one of the journalists had to wait for a whole week!) with Argentine president Cristina Kirchner.
The President, was immediately called Cristina and the formal Spanish tense was used. The interviews were very intimate and pleasant. Kirchner is a good talker and both journalists did not press for uncomfortable moments with uncomfortable questions.
Once I became used to the level of cheerful intimacies almost as if Kirchner were having a conversation at the breakfast table with her deceased husband and former Argentine president, Nestor Kirchner, I found myself enjoying the charla (chat). To my horror Cristina (I want to write here Kirchner not Cristina) was asked about names that had been used to insult her in the past. She mentioned “yegua” (a female horse) with all the connotations to be read in a mare in heat waiting for the stallion. But worse of all she said, “I have been called a puta.” Now puta is an extremely nasty version of the English for whore.
Can you imagine President Obama stating during an interview with a lessened in effect “I have been called a son of a bitch.”?
For years before Nixon went public and stated, “I am not a crook,” I used to emphatically say that the difference in how Latin Americans perceived politicians and how North Americans did was that the former expected politicians to be dishonest while the latter were always surprised, even disappointed to find out that they were.
But because of language, the use of the English language, even those who abhor Prime Minister Harper would never resort to anything worse than, “He is an S.O.B.,”and would probably do so in the intimacy of friends and never in public.
Argentina used to be run by patrician politicians, the Catholic Church, the oligarch land-owners and the Military establishment.
Thanks to the Malvinas war and the terrible and bloody campaign by the army in disappearing political activists in the 70s the military establishment seems to be in a sort of bearish hibernation. Conscription was eliminated by President Saul Menem. You do not see their military uniforms and most officers and non-commissioned officers dress in civies on the street. The Ministery or later Secretary of War became the less offensive Ministry of Defence.
While the present Argentine pope is as popular on the street as Messi the church no longer holds the might it once did.
As I see it power in Argentina lies in a sort of unofficial sharing by the moneyed oligarchies, many politicians are from that sector, and powerful politicians with fingers in all kinds of important infrastructure. Between these two powers lie the struggling middle class and a vast, increasing in size, lower class.
Many of the lower class have moved from the provinces in search of non-existent jobs in the sprawling Buenos Aires. They live in shanty towns called villas miserias by Argentines.
One of my moneyed relatives, a patrician, a very well educated lawyer with manners (most of the time) and very white, upon seeing me said to me in Spanish, “You are a friend of that chimpanzee. Luckily he is neither a Jew nor a homosexual.” He was of course referring to my liking of the American President.
I was absolutely speechless but in a few days I began to understand the level of vitriol that Argentines have for politicians in the opposite side of their preferred political spectrum.
As a boy my father used to take me to the Argentine and Buenos Aires version of Vancouver’s PNE. It is called La Rural and it is housed in the leafy area of Palermo, close to the botanical garden and the Zoo. It is right by the statue of Garibaldi. I will never forget seeing those huge Simmental bulls walking slowly, side to side, like bull elephants, with their huge testicles almost dragging and sweeping the hay floor.
I have no idea if testicles (huevos, testículos, cojones in Spanish) have any bearing with ultimate insults in the Spanish language. If you are easily offended by language leave this page now.
The worst of all possible insults in Spain is”
Me cago en Dios, or I shit on God.
The Argentine version sounds much more offensive but is less controversial religiously.
Me cago en la concha de tu madre (or more intimate and direct, tu hermana, or sister) which translates to I shit on your mother’s cunt.
A paler version, which you can almost utter in the company of casual friends is
La concha de la lora (is it understood that one is to shit on a female parrot’s cunt?). This statement is said when one wants to say wow!
But the most often used insult in Argentina involves balls, bolas and Pelotas. If someone is an idiot you call him “boludo”. If he really is stupid then you up the ante with “pelotudo”. I have no idea if the origin of this is that lumbering bull in la Rural. Doughnut holes (much larger in Argentina) are either called "bolas de fraile", monk's balls or "suspiros de monjas" a nun's sigh.
If you are from the struggling left any politician serving the oligarchs is a “boludo,”or “pelotudo.” If this politician is deemed to not only be stupid but also intelligently using his position to better himself then he is a “pelotudo, hijo de puta.” And the same level of insult goes in the opposite direction.
Had you visited Argentina in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s or now you would get the same answer to this question, “How are things?”
“Es un pais de mierda." It is a country of shit. We have never been worse. Our politicians are hijos de putas.”
And on a final note there is a particularly Argentine expression that begins with:
Me cago de (I shit)
Nos cagamos de (We shit)
By: risa (laughter) frío (cold), calor (heat), hambre (hunger) and you name it.
I find the expression offensive to my Vancouver sensitive ears and I can only surmise that my erstwhile fellow citizens suffer from a collective but figurative diarrhea.