Category Archives: Spanish language

Terminología española or how to make better dictionaries for US Spanish speakers

If you are traveling to Spain or Mexico, but do not know the language, chances are that you will pick up a pocket English-Spanish dictionary at Half Price Books, Barnes & Noble or at your local library. Publishers like Collins, Merriam-Webster and Random House are well known. There are also bilingual phrasebooks. Pocket dictionaries are intended for casual users, naturally.

Students who are taking a language course will need a more robust solution, where the dictionary shows parts of speech and usage examples in practical situations. Again, major publishers have that need covered. Then you have more specialized dictionaries containing definitions and highly detailed notes on usage. Even large bilingual English-Spanish dictionaries, however, are general-purpose publications. In the United States, the focus is on bilingual glossaries or dictionaries, not monolingual ones. In the case of English, the United States markets are saturated with a vast array of proper English dictionaries. If you are a student of a foreign language, French, Spanish or German, you need a proper monolingual dictionary in that language. Most such dictionaries are imported, however. In essence, language students and tourists have their needs covered by the existing dictionaries. What about the local Spanish-speaking residents?

In the case of Spanish, it’s not a foreign language anymore, since more than 37 million speak it in America. And many more will speak it in the years to come. Why is it, then, that it is a language only visible to us when we hear it spoken or seen on cable TV telenovelas (soap operas)? Readers can avail themselves of the many Spanish newspapers, such as the El Diario La Prensa (New York) and El Nuevo Herald (Miami, FL), as well as weeklies and magazines. Books are also being published in Spanish in the United States, according to the Publishers Global website.

County-level map of Spanish language use in the United States in 2012

County-level map of Spanish language use in the United States in 2012

The Spanish language is being taught in schools, community colleges and universities. Bilingual workers and professionals —those using Spanish and English— are found across many industries. So, why am I still concerned for the lack of monolingual Spanish dictionaries being published natively in the United States? Although there are efforts to catalog, promote and/or describe specific Spanish uses, such as Ilán Stavans’ Spanglish and RIUSS‘ work on estadounidismos (Spanish words or expressions that take on new meaning in the United States), there are no lexicography projects involving Spanish in the United States that I know of.

At this point, I want to make a clarification: the numerous university translation certificate courses being taught have a terminology component, which is basically a list of domain-specific words, such as financial or medical terminology, along with the basics on how to build bilingual or multilingual glossaries. But this area of terminology is not lexicography, which is the craft and discipline of dictionary making.

Dr. Francisco Marcos-Marín, a professor of linguistics and advisor to RIUSS, has written a brief report on Spanish lexicography. Spanish lexicography is also the focus of a master’s program sponsored jointly by Universidad de León (Spain) and the Real Academia Española. Sadly, candidates to this unique graduate program on Spanish lexicography cannot be citizens of the United States, Equatorial Guinea, Philippines or Spain. Yet it is precisely here, in America, where Spanish lexicography is most needed at this time.

fundacion-carolina-master-lexicografia-hispanica

The two examples cited, Spanglish and the RIUSS projects, are isolated projects that pursue very different approaches. On one hand, Spanglish reflects a lingua franca for some Spanish speakers (there are examples of an incipient Spanglish literature), but Spanglish is not Spanish and it is not useful for communicating with other Spanish-speaking populations or nations. On the other hand, RIUSS has for objectives the study and promotion of formal Spanish usage and plain Spanish language in health care and similar public services. These projects might use word lists and glossaries to achieve their purposes, but their objective is not lexicography per se.

Why would Spanish lexicography be necessary or desirable in America? I can envision a few reasons:

  1. Promotion of Spanish as another language (not a foreign language) in use in the United States beyond translation and imported literature
  2. Creation and publication of US Spanish dictionaries
  3. Complementary and solid research beyond the politics of statistics
  4. Stronger and more effective visibility of United States Spanish usage in written and spoken form

Spanish speakers and other users of this language already have dictionaries published by the Real Academia Española, but this is not enough to foster and cement their linguistic ans sociocultural identity. Think tanks like the Pew Research Center, political parties and cultural observers may talk about Spanish and Spanish speakers in the United States but this is not enough. I hope to start a conversation.

 

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Filed under Lexicography, Spanglish, Spanish language, US Spanish

We’re in the fourth inning

Let me start today’s post by honoring a revolutionary world inventor, Steve Jobs, on his passing, just a day after the new iPhone 4S was announced by Tim Cook this week. Some bloggers and news outlets were underwhelmed by this new iteration of the famous gizmo. There is one experimental feature, however, that deserves special mention.

Siri is a new feature in the iPhone 4S. According to media reports, it allows the user to speak to the phone not just statements like “Call Stan to go watch Thor” but queries such as “Any Jiffy Lubes in Orlando?” as well. While Siri is in beta mode (in English only, I suppose), I can imagine the use of its artificial intelligence (A.I.) engine to infer meaning from statements in other languages.

According to Fox News Latino, Spanish will be a challenge for voice recognition in Siri. So, we are forced to sit on our hands and wait. If A.I. through Siri could interpret Spanish phrases and commands in a fairly accurate fashion, it won’t be machine translation per se, but a new kind of computerized, on-the-fly foreign language interpretation.

In yesterday’s issue of USA Today’s Money section, Mike Thompson, mobile business head at Nuance Communications, says “We’re in the fourth inning –the rate of change and innovation is faster than ever before in speech. The accuracy and performance [are] getting better. (In the) next five innings, we’ll see greater and greater natural language.” I was happy to find a technical text with a sports metaphor. This can be an excellent exercise in writing to test your Spanish writers and translators.

Spanish translators knowledgeable in baseball understand the meaning of inning, one of nine divisions of play. It’s called entrada or manga in Spanish. Most translation services providers like to talk about high quality, faithful translations. Almost no one says a word about translation strategies or techniques, which are learned through a rigorous study of translation theories applied to practice.

If we use the equivalence strategy, we could search for a sports equivalence in Spanish –soccer or baseball, perhaps? But what about the meaning underneath the sports figure of speech? What does the author say with in the fourth inning? What does he say with in the next five innings? It doesn’t take us long to realize that the fourth inning is very close to half of the baseball game at 9 innings, as if he were saying we’re almost halfway.

How would your Spanish writer or translator express this?

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Spanish language, Style

Conspiracy theories

Two nights ago, I took part in a debate about whether the death of Osama bin Laden had been a CIA fabrication. The other two people in the discussion live in Argentina. They both favor certain conspiracy theories that have long been debunked, such as the 9/11 attack was orchestrated by the U.S. government or that Osama bin Laden had been dead for some time now.

Fringe myths have been with humankind since humans began to talk to each other. There is good and bad gossip, and there are entertaining and dangerous myths. Language is not without its tall tales and misconceptions born out of misinformation, prejudice, ignorance or fear.

In Spanish in particular, I found the following ‘theories’:

a) Spanish-speaking people in all 22 countries where Spanish is used speak the same Spanish.
b) Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States are fully bilingual.
c) Spanish translators are bilingual typists.
d) Spanish interpreters can also translate.
e) Castillian Spanish is too different from Latin American Spanish.
f) The Real Academia Española is out of touch with the way Spanish is currently used.
g) Educated Spanish speakers everywhere love headings with all the words capitalized.
h) Spanish immigrants from Mexico are all uneducated.

I am certain there are more out there. If you have any stories or ‘theories’, please share them here.

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Filed under Etymology, Spanish language, Word formation