Stumbling on the Vocabulary of National Life (Part Two)

by Joseph P. Mazza

This post is part two of a two-part series by Joe Mazza. Read last week’s post here (you won’t regret it): Stumbling on the Vocabulary of National Life (Part One).

Having survived the surly eviction from a Latino grocery store, I decided long ago to pursue the vocabulary of national life on less dangerous turf—namely around the dining room table, followed up by copious online research. Then I check my research after the next meal, just to keep things real.

In some cultures, it is not uncommon to spend a good hour or more chatting around the table after any meal, and there have been times in my life when these talks have lasted far longer, with one meal simply blending in with the next. In Peru, they call this post-prandial prattle la sobremesa, which in itself is one of those hard-to-translate cultural bywords. Naturally, after countless sobremesas in Lima and DC, spread out over two decades, my storehouse of Peruvian expressions is enormous. And my information extraction techniques have become more refined with the passage of time!

At last year’s ATA Annual Conference (2018), I delivered a session focused on eight words that stood out in this 20-year campaign to master the Spanish of Peruvian life. Each word had been a challenge for me, and each challenge had a story. The input from the Peruvians and non-Peruvians who attended my session was invaluable. The hardest part of preparing the talk was deciding which eight expressions to pick.

Criollo and cholo

Two words were ethnographic labels—criollo and cholo—that have proven supremely difficult to translate. The first term is a cousin of “creole” in English, so an ATA Annual Conference in New Orleans was the perfect venue to discuss it. You have to take on a word like “criollo” in a single-country context, so “creole” is of little use as a translation.

In Peru the word suggests a mixture of cultures, particularly along the coast, where European blended with African and Native American. Yet the focus is on the sum of the parts, not the parts themselves, and when a Peruvian says something is “criollazo,” (super-criollo), you think of how some in the United States say “all-American.”

Peruvians are fond of citing examples of their innate ingenuity, using the phrase “la chispa criolla” (the spark of criollo genius). I have been called “el gringo criollo,” and take that to mean I have earned my merit badge in Peruvian studies!

But so often these are loaded words, ones that can include and exclude, depending on one’s perspective and intent, and ones an outsider such as me had best be careful about using.

Cholo” is perhaps even more fraught, focusing as it does on the Native American contribution to Peruvian life, acknowledging the blending with other cultures, and ranging from the proudest epithet to the vilest insult. Peruvians will call out to their buddies, “Oye, cholo…” (Hey there, cholo), and one of my wife’s cousins refers to me in direct speech as “cholito de mi corazón” (literally “little cholo of my heart”). Here, the word is almost denatured from its original meaning.

There is a comic series called Super Cholo, and a popular YouTuber named El Cholo Mena which tempt one to think the word is safe to use. Yet examples of disparaging uses of cholo are easy to find in print, on the Internet, and in everyday speech. It is a word that invites a translator’s note, which invites even more trouble!

El Señor de los Milagros

Turning to the spiritual side, we looked at the Catholic devotion to el Señor de los Milagros (the Lord of the Miracles), to whom most of October (el mes morado) is dedicated in Peru. The primary miracle occurred when an image of Christ, painted on the wall of a church in Lima frequented by Afro-Peruvians, survived an 18th Century earthquake.

If you are Peruvian, you are expected to know that el Cristo de Pachacamillo, el Cristo negro, and el Cristo morado all refer to el Señor de los Milagros; that you will see hundreds of people each October wearing robes known as la túnica morada, la indumentaria morada, or el hábito morado, and that you will be eating the traditional cake known as el turrón de doña Pepa.

Armed with all this cultural knowledge, we were ready to take on this 2014 headline from El Comercio: “Despide el mes morado con el turrón de los feligreses.While the uninitiated might be tempted to translate this as “Saying goodbye to the purple month with the nougat of the parishioners,” during my presentation, we were able to infuse authenticity into our translation, and came up with “Month-long religious festival concludes as the faithful flock to buy traditional dessert.” I thought “flock” added a nice spiritual touch!

Los conos

Next we turned to the terminology of urban planning in greater Lima, the sprawling metropolis that more than a third of Peru calls home. There, the term “los conos” (the cones) refers to the newly developing triangle-shaped areas (or “Lima emergente”) to the north, south, and east, as contrasted to “Lima tradicional,” which includes the city center (aka Cercado de Lima—because there was a wall around it once) and its outlying districts. Somewhere in the middle is the old port city of Callao.


Most demonyms (gentilicios) in Peru fit predictable patterns. Hence those from Arequipa are arequipeños, and those from Chachapoyas are chachapoyanos. But the proud people of Callao are chalacos, and they consider themselves a breed apart from their neighbors, los limeños. The good-hearted sparring between chalacos and limeños is not unlike the exchanges I have overheard between the denizens of the various boroughs of New York City. One piece of advice learned the hard way: when you land at LIM (Jorge Chávez International Airport), never tell a chalaco cab driver you are glad to be in Lima. You are likely to hear “You mean you are glad to be in Callao—you’ll be in Lima in a few minutes!”


Suyo” is a Quechua word meaning “quarter,” and it is often mistaken for the Castilian possessive pronoun el suyo (which maddeningly translates to his, hers, its, theirs, or yours). This double entendre is rich fodder for clever journalists. The Quechua suyo comes from the four quarters into which the Inca Empire, or Tahuantinsuyo (Land of the Four Quarters), was divided.

The boundaries of the quarters radiated from the capital at Cuzco, the “navel of the world” (qosco in Quechua). One needs this deep history to understand the term’s modern usage. For the contemporary Peruvian, “los cuatro suyos,” means “from all corners of the country.”

The famous “Marcha de los Cuatro Suyos” (March of the Four Quarters) in July 2000 was a nationwide protest march converging on Lima. The Peruvian diaspora in the United States is sometimes referred to as “el quinto suyo,” (the fifth quarter), which should be an oxymoron.

La U/Alianza

As a nod to the soccer fans in my audience, I included the Janus-faced pair La U/Alianza—two rival crosstown soccer teams in Lima. Loyalty to one team or the other is a point of honor among many Peruvians, and the outsider must tread with a good set of chimpunes (cleats) on this dangerous playing field!

The Club Alianza Lima, aka los aliancistas, los blanquiazules, or los íntimos, was established in 1901, and plays in a neighborhood known as Matute, which also serves as a byname for the team in sports commentary. Their archrivals are the Club Universitaria de Deportes, aka los cremas, los merengues, or la U, established in 1924, and playing at a stadium in the Ate neighborhood.

Each year, the teams face off at a grudge match called the “superclásico,” and the country goes wild.

Incidentally, despite their rivalry, the two teams have been known to help one another in times of trouble, and this show of unity is commemorated in the popular dessert known as the combinación clásica, a dollop of rice pudding (for La U—perhaps emphasizing the Castilian), next to a dollop of purple corn pudding (for La Alianza—perhaps emphasizing the African and the indigenous). Five millennia of cultural movement and a century of athletic brinksmanship, served in a glass dish!


We ran out of time before getting to the last word—las yungas. This is another Quechua loanword, and often refers to the warm valleys high up in the Andes.

When we study Spanish in the US, we learn that several Andean countries have three regions—coast, mountains, and rain forest (costa/sierra/selva). And many of our fellow students in these very countries learn the same three subdivisions.

But a noted Peruvian geographer named Javier Pulgar Vidal (1911–2003) delivered a paper in 1940 called Las ocho regiones naturales del Perú, in which he posited that there were not three, but eight natural regions to his country, to which he attached indigenous names. One of these was la yunga, in the singular.

Such words inspire us to reclassify our world, to question convention, to reach back into the past, and to mine it for the future. Which is, in essence, our overall mission as language learners, as we stumble on the vocabulary of national life . . . in all its glorious varieties.

Image source: Pixabay

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

Our “Mother Tongue”: Keeping it Fresh in a Foreign Land

By Helen Eby

Estemed friends,

Old LettersIt seems to make much time that I don’t write to you.—Ramón, in “Ramón Writes,” an Argentine column published by the Buenos Aires Herald every two weeks, as a humorous take on Argentine Spanglish. Ramón had trouble saying such simple things as “It’s been a long time since I’ve written to you.” Today, we laugh at Google Translate instead.

Keeping our mother tongue fresh is a complex issue. My mother is Argentine and spoke Spanish to me as a child. Then, I moved to Argentina when I was eight. Even in Argentina, when I was graduating from college, my teachers sometimes told me that my English had a subtle effect on my Spanish writing!

Those of us who speak more than one language live in an intertidal zone where languages meet. We live where languages are constantly in contact. Sometimes new terms are created because we can’t find a term for something that is hard to say in the other language. When that happens, how do we avoid becoming “Ramón”?

Everyone grows up with a mother tongue. It is an accident of birth. We love it. We speak it at home. We read it, go to school in it, study it, sing in it, live in it. Some people pick up a second language. Then we move. Sometimes our moves are planned, and sometimes they are for reasons beyond our control.. Regardless, we are uprooted and transplanted into another culture. We move into the land of our second language.

I have two mother tongues, and as a translator and interpreter I use them both constantly. With two languages in constant contact, how do I keep them from “corrupting” each other?


If you are uprooted from the land of your mother tongue, take your books! I have met so many people who miss their books! My favorite? Don Segundo Sombra, by Ricardo Güiraldes. It takes me right back to my uncle’s estancia, where I learned how to ride a horse.

Read the newspaper: The paper talks about all kinds of things: politics, science, life, the comics, letters to the editors. In Argentina, it even includes foul language. But I’m using too much Argentine Spanish for a Mexican audience, so I’d better start reading a Mexican paper! Excelsior is on my list.

Read literature: Novels, short stories, poems. Every time I travel I load a small suitcase with books. I can’t find them in the US, so I buy them wherever I go. Literature talks about life. Reading keeps me using the language well. It spills into my conversation and my writing.

Read about the language: There are articles about language in the newspaper. Read them, think about them. Share and discuss them with colleagues. Argue about the use of certain words. Fight about it! It’s OK, it’s a topic about which you both care! And right now, I’m reading grammar books! Gramática didáctica del español, by Leonardo Gómez Torrego. You can’t find my favorites on Amazon. I shop on


I love interpreting! I get to experience both my languages in action! As a medical interpreter who also translates documents for a local hospital, I interpret for patients who read the same documents I translate! This helps me know exactly who my audience is and what will help them understand the material better. The words they are confused by in an interpreting session will confuse them in a translation. It makes my translations come alive in many ways.

Working with a colleague

I work with a partner and we review each other’s work. Just recently I learned that “reintegro,” which I thought meant “reimbursement”, actually has a different meaning in Mexico: it is a “lottery payment for the exact money you paid for your ticket!” My word for reimbursement is now “reembolso.”

I am an interpreter and a translator. I can’t afford to lose my edge on the spoken or the written front in either of my two languages. Then again, these languages are too close to my soul to be able to bear it.

As interpreters and translators, we are expressing a message. We can be like mechanical musicians, like the ones who get all the notes just right, with the right rhythm, and the right intonation, but somehow are just boring. As my daughter’s viola teacher would sometimes tell her, while she played a scale, “You couldn’t pay me enough to listen to that!”

Our goal, however, is to be “real” musicians, like the orchestras people line up to hear because their ensemble is so amazing that they can play the most difficult pieces in a way that speaks to our souls. These orchestras, as they play, transport you to a place of joy, of rest, of discord, of whatever the music is.

What makes these musicians special? They certainly work on their technique! However, they haven’t lost their love for music. They listen to other people’s performances, they play with friends for fun. We should be this way with languages. We should be very particular about our technique, without losing our love for our languages. So, here are my closing tips:

  • Write letters to your friends in both languages.
  • Call your friends on the phone, and just chat with them in both languages.
  • Join a book club. You don’t all have to read the same book. You can even start one!
  • Join a Toastmasters club in the language you don’t get to speak every day.
  • Start a local “language sharpening group” where you critique each other’s writing in each language.

As Ramón might say, “Until Miami, I salute you, hoping always that the things will go well with you.”

“I look forward to seeing you at the ATA conference in November, and trust that all will be well with you.” Translated from “Ramón” to English by David Eby, whose English is uninfluenced by any other language.