Stumbling on the Vocabulary of National Life (Part One)

by Joseph P. Mazza

I envy those who take up foreign languages spoken in a single country. Sure, there may be regional varieties within that country and émigré communities too. Yet these happy colleagues have the institutions and lifeways of only one country to tackle. Japanese linguists will be the first to dispute how easy this really is!

Having been a Romance/English translator for years, I find the sheer number of national variants of Spanish, French, and Portuguese both invigorating and overwhelming. Even with Italian, one has to stay on top of Italy, Switzerland, and Vatican City, not to mention San Marino, with its co-heads of state called “Captains Regent” (gli Eccellentissimi Capitani Reggenti); its 8 subdivisions called “Castles” (Castelli); and its dates cross-reckoned “from the foundation of the Republic” (dalla Fondazione della Repubblica, or d.F.R.), which, by tradition, occurred in 301 AD. If you have ever dealt with a document from that Most Serene Republic, you know what I mean.

Let’s face it, why else did we venture down this career path, if not to visit with the people, see the sights, hear the music, and learn the history that come as part of the package? To me, mastery of what I call “the vocabulary of national life,” that is, the words used by a community of language speakers within a country to describe the unique features of their national existence, is the most fascinating part of language learning.

Yet in our zeal to conquer the legal, technical, and other terminology that peppers our source texts, we translators sometimes neglect this vocabulary of national life—some of which defies translation, to the eternal frustration of term base builders. The systematic study and charting of this ever-changing vocabulary should indeed be part of our continuing education. To bring structure to what is often a random learning process, I have set down ten categories, in no particular order:

·         Geography ·         History
·         People and society ·         Business
·         Government ·         Cultural life (including sports!)
·         Infrastructure and resources ·         Spiritual life
·         Education ·         Food and drink

Although born of reflection, the list is my own invention, and the categories are flexible. If you are a soccer fan, you can merge two categories, and use the spare for that much-loved sport, in which case you could relabel “culture” as “all culture outside of soccer.”

The point is to stay well rounded, and to make sure that some categories are outside your comfort zone. Then go to it. Find out what sports teams are tops in Tegucigalpa; what dance tunes are pulsating in Punta del Este; what folks eat for Sunday breakfast in Badajoz; and who is the patron saint of Cochabamba. Do this systematically, and your Spanish will be all the richer for it. So will your translations.

If you are a multi-Romance linguist, repeat the process for French, Portuguese, and Italian. Ten categories, several hundred terms for each, multiplied by 60 or 70 countries . . . you had best start young!

When I married a Peruvian nearly two decades ago, I acquired a ringside seat beside one of the two dozen national cultures played out in Spanish. I vowed to stop at nothing to explore every lexical byway of the Peruvian experience in Spanish, leaving Quechua and Aymara for another lifetime. My glossary entries numbered in the hundreds. Some Peruvians looked at me with admiration. Others thought I was a spy.

Sometimes, the quest has had unintended consequences. One summer day, my wife and I ventured into a Latin American grocery store in the DC suburbs. I quickly became distracted by a rack of herbs in plastic packets, each with its name in what seemed to be authoritative Spanish and English. So taken was I by this lexical herbiary that I whipped out a notepad and started jotting down words. The store owner/bouncer lumbered over and said “Buddy, you gotta leave . . . I don’t need anyone here writing down my prices. I know the competition sent you!” I sensed he had little appreciation for the vocabulary of national life, so we turned tail and left. My wife was not pleased—“They had the best tamales in DC, and now we can never go back.” To me, this was acceptable collateral damage in the translator’s eternal quest for truth.

Tune in for part two of this article, in which Joe Mazza will delve into the vocabulary of national life in Peru. [You can now read part two here.]

Image source: Pixabay

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