Monthly Archives: November 2011

Rough. Ready?

I recently celebrated the 6-month mark of being in Barcelona. In grim pathetic fallacy fashion, it bounced with rain, that day. I ducked out of work and went to buy cakes for everyone in the office to mark the occasion. But they don’t sell cakes here the way they do back home – if you really want to get to Greggs you’ll be walking a bloody long way. I made do with packets of ready-wrapped doughnuts and sent an email round saying ‘cakes in the kitchen to celebrate the rain’.

I’m feeling a bittersweet gratification at reaching this milestone. Loathe as I am to carp about life here, in reality this post has been brewing for some time. The compulsion to write it came to a head last week, on the first morning my Dad and I stepped onto the street during his 3-day visit. At over six feet tall, and broad, my father is a giant among Spaniards. This didn’t stop a well-dressed, middle-aged Catalan gent from ramrodding into him as they passed each other to such an extent that he was sent flying half way across the pavement. The guy didn’t apologise, or even as much as turn his head to acknowledge the incident. Welcome to Barcelona.

If this was an isolated case of rudeness, I wouldn’t even mention it. But I can’t help seeing it as typical of the aggressive tone that much social interaction here tends to take. Not long after I got here, Barcelona was described to me by another foreigner (from a non-English speaking country) as a city on the make. “People here are only out for themselves”, he said.

Walking down the street? Keep your elbows out – you will need them. Travelling on the metro? Don’t stand back to let people leave the train – no-one else does and you will go under in the crush. Buying stuff from the supermarket? Better have your bags packed in record speed or the next person’s groceries will land smack bang on top of your own. Or, worst of all, driving through the city? Be prepared to screech forward at a hundred miles an hour the very millisecond that amber light hints green, or face the horns of the hundreds of other drivers baying for your blood.

As always, I exaggerate. But only slightly.

one of the canons at Montjuïc Castle

On your guard.

A rude awakening

Again, ironically, Spanish struggles to render the English word ‘rude’ in any sort of satisfactory way. ‘Badly educated’ is what’s usually volunteered in translation, which somehow fails to capture the base sense of righteous injustice at the heart of the English version. It’s just too mild. “He was so rude!” your friend exclaims, and you empathise straight away, sharing her sense of put-outness over such uncouth and ill-mannered behaviour.

Try to translate my last sentence and its inherent sensibilities into Spanish and you will find you are up against it. Yes, I know British folk have a priggish reputation when it comes to these things. But is it possible to be too polite? And what I’m really curious about…what happens when your adopted culture lacks a decent word to describe the behaviour you find so offensive? If society hasn’t seen fit enough cause to come up with the word, how can the concept exist? And, intriguingly, what do you then do with your own internal sense of aggrievance?

Getting real

You find ways to express it because the alternative is neither hale nor hearty. Existing in a perpetual state of pissed-offness, waiting for others to see the light and come round to your point of view, is not fun. There are days I wince at my own irony, having spent the last X amount of years on George Street, Edinburgh, complaining to anyone within earshot about the rarefied, cossetted existence that enveloped me.

The crapulous ingenuity of the first few months has been abraded down to a hardened, warily wizened core. Ready? Hmm. Resilient. And some days more than a little weary.

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Common mistakes in Spanish and English

I work in a Barcelona office where the two official languages are Spanish and English, but on a daily basis I’m also surrounded by French, German, Italian, Dutch and Catalan. Not to mention the odd Portuguese or Polish conversation in the background. This leaning tower of Babel is tilted spectacularly over my head, as I’m responsible for all copy and content for the company in most of these languages. (Including the ones I don’t speak.) It’s an incredible environment for anyone interested in language, or indeed humanity. I’m struck every day by new ways of saying things and of apprehending reality as a result.

However. The downside of working alongside a bunch of people from myriad countries is that inevitably an anodyne, ‘lite’, internationalised version of the language emerges. The English and Spanish that I hear in the office are for the most part spoken by non-natives in dialogue with other non-natives. Today, for example, I went out to lunch with an Italian colleague and we spoke in Spanish the whole time. This can be cool…but it can also lead to the perpetuation of the same old time-worn errors being trotted out again and again. Till they’re immersed in your subconscious and you think they’re actually valid.

This worries me. For the sake of my future fluency in both languages.

So in an attempt to stave off the insidious fraying round the edges, I’ve decided to publish this post, with some of the typical mistakes I hear frequently in both languages. I plan to update it as I go along. Hope you find it useful:)

Mistakes from Spanish into English

Original phrase Wrong version Correct translation
¿Cómo se llama? How is it/she/he called? What is it/she/he called?
¿Cómo es? How is it? What’s it like?
Somos cinco. We’re five. There are five of us.
Aquí tienes. Here you have. Here you go (when you hand someone something).
Dime algo. Tell me something. Let me know.
¡Besos! Kisses! Cheers!
¿Se come bien ahí? Do you eat properly there? Is the food good there?
Un barrio turístico. A touristic area. A very touristy area.
Se lo expliqué. I explained it him. I explained it to him.
Sufrió tres abortos. She had three abortions. She had three miscarriages (cuidado – hay una gran diferencia!)
Les puse en copia (del email). I put them in copy (of the email). I copied them in (to the email).
Llegué al aeropuerto/Barcelona/pueblo. I arrived to the airport/Barcelona/the town. I arrived AT the airport/IN Barcelona/IN the town. (Ojo, nunca puedes decir ‘arrived to’ en inglés).
A mí me pasó que no encontré mis llaves. It happened to me that I couldn’t find my keys. What happened was that I couldn’t find my keys, (o simplemente), I couldn’t find my keys.
Te invito (a tomar algo, por ejemplo). I invite you. (La otra persona se queda pensando ‘¿A dónde?’) It’s on me/It’s my treat.
Estoy pensando ir a… I’m thinking to go to… I’m thinking of going to… (nunca es posible en inglés decir ‘thinking to…’)

Mistakes from English into Spanish

Original phrase Wrong version Correct translation
Let me know. Déjame saber. Dime algo/avísame/ya me dirás.
I lived with my boyfriend of five years. Vivía con mi novio de cinco años. (I lived with my boyfriend, who was five.) Vivía con mi novio, con quien llevaba cinco años.
What’s the plan/problema/date? ¿Qué es el plan/problema/fecha? ¿Cuál es el plan/problema/fecha?
Actually, I’d quite like to… Actualmente, me gustaría… De hecho/la verdad es que me gustaría…(‘actualmente’ means ‘currently’ in Spanish)
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