My life, Racism

If you can’t make fun of Chinese, who can you make fun of?


I was very surprised to see this sauce in the grocery store the other day. I’m amazed that it still carries that name. It took me back to my childhood in the 1960s, when racist humor was widespread and blatant.  Mr. Magoo’s buck-toothed and pigtailed assistant Charlie called him “Mistah Magloo!” and “Numbah one bloss man.” Confucius jokes were popular: “Confucius say man with one chopstick go hungry.”

We had several 45s* of Buddy Hackett comedy routines delivered in a broad “Chinese” accent, including Chinese Rock and Egg Roll, Chinese Waiter, and Chinese Laundry. My sister and I found them amusing and memorized every word.

When I’ve recited portions to my kids, they’ve been visibly uncomfortable, having grown up in an era much more sensitive to racism. “What’s funny about foreign accents, anyway?” my daughter  asked me.

What indeed? I had no answer.



*Vinyl records about the size of a CD with one three-minute recording on each side



My life, Travel

Shirts and a Florida resort

Why do these shirts make me think of Charlie Sheen? Especially the one on the right.


I would honestly rather not have to think about him.

JC Penney had summer shirts on clearance. I now have enough nice shirts to last the rest of my life. My girls will be glad to know I passed on the silk Hawaiian with the parrots and the bamboo. It looked cool on the rack but not in the mirror. Nor did I get either of the Charlie Sheen shirts.

We were at the mall in Bradenton last night. I don’t know the name of the place, but it’s dying. Apparently they built a new mall close to the freeway, and this older place in the heart of Bradenton, across the street from the Manatee County Sheriff, is withering away.

There’s a dollar-and-up place in the mall where I found a cable for my phone for $2.99. The original cable has to be bent just so to make contact, so I needed a new one. I had my choice of pink and blue. The one advantage of a colored cable is that I won’t mix it up with any other cable in the house.

I chose blue, which should be needless to say, but I feel compelled to say it.

For the past two weeks we have been staying at Cedar Cove Resort on Holmes Beach, just west of Bradenton. It’s a pleasant place. There are autographs from James Taylor, Brian Wilson, and other celebrities in the office.  I’m working in Bradenton so my employer pays for the hotel. We’re enjoying it, except for the lousy cell phone reception and slow wifi.

This is our unit. I think it’s the cheapest one in the place.



Language, Spanish, Translation

False friends beginning with P (Spanish-English)

This list of false friends includes several of my favorites. It’s fascinating to see that plaga means “pest” and peste means “plague.” As a result, Hay una peste de plaga por aquí gets translated backwards: “There’s a plague of pests around here,” or much better: “This place is infested with bugs.”

In Costa Rica, 20 years ago, I heard the term plagio in reference to a kidnapping. I thought it was funny because in English, “plagiarism” only refers to what students have done since antiquity: copying other people’s work and presenting it as their own. But when I investigated the etymology of the word, I discovered that in Latin, plagium means “kidnapping.” The term was modified in English about four centuries ago to refer to certain kinds of intellectual property theft.

It was also in Costa Rica that I heard an amusing story about a missionary who was preaching about what Jesus meant when he said we are the salt of the world. The missionary unintentionally told the congregation that they needed  to be condoms (preservativos) in their society.

When I was a kid, I read  the question, ¿Qué pretendes? in an adventure book, and I was very confused because the character to whom the question was made wasn’t pretending anything. Upon examining the context, I came to the (correct) conclusion that the question meant, “What are you trying to do?”

My wife, a singer very well known in Colombia, plans to record the beautiful Gloria Estefan song called No Pretendo, which says the following:

No pretendo ser la huella que se deja en tu camino
ni pretendo ser aquella que se cruza en tu destino
Solo quiero descubrirme tras la luz de tu sonrisa
Ser el bálsamo que alivia tus tristezas en la vida

I don’t intend to be the footprint left on your path
nor do I intend to be the woman who crosses your destiny
I just want to find myself behind the light of your smile
to be the balsam that soothes the sorrows of your life…

What a fortunate man I am, that from among all of her pretendientes Alicia Isabel chose to love me.

Here is the list of false friends beginning with P:

Pariente: “relative”
Parent: “father or mother”

Peste: “plague”
Pest:  “destructive insect or animal; annoying person”

Plaga:  “pest; calamity”
Plague: “contagious disease; calamity”

Plagio:  “kidnapping; plagiarism”
Plagiarism: “copying another person’s work to present as one’s own”

Prácticamente: “in practice; in reality”
Practically: “almost, nearly”

Preservativo: “condom”
Preservative: “food additive to increase shelf life”

Pretender: “aspire; court; pretend”
Pretend: “simulate, fake, act as if something is true that is not”

Pretendiente: “candidate, claimant; suitor”
Pretender: “candidate, claimant; one who pretends”

Procurar: “try, attempt”
Procure: “acquire, get”

Propaganda: “advertisement”
Propaganda: “information issued by a political organization to promote an idea or cause”

Language, Spanish, Translation

False friends beginning with G-O (Spanish-English)

Most mistakes in translated texts are the result of overly literal translation, in my experience. When we translate word by word instead of creating an idiomatic translation, the result includes strange and sometimes incoherent phrases or sentences. For instance, “He waited a minute or two” can be translated literally: Él esperó un minuto o dos, but it sounds more natural to say, Esperó un par de minutos “He waited a pair of minutes” or Se detuvo un momento “He paused for a moment,” because these are Spanish idioms.

Note that in English every sentence has to have a subject, in this case “he.” In Spanish the subject is omitted when it is clear from context and conjugation, as in the latter two examples above. A common error made by native Spanish speakers translating into English is to omit the subject in such sentences. This is especially tricky in sentences that don’t ever have a subject in Spanish, like Está lloviendo, which they might translate as “Is raining” instead of “It’s raining.”

In the examples above, the meaning is retained despite the literal translations. However, in the worst cases, a literal translation produces completely incorrect meaning, especially when false friends are involved. For example, a Latin American family took their son to the emergency room because he was dizzy and almost unconscious. They didn’t speak English, and when they tried to explain to the (English-speaking) nurse that the boy appeared to have been poisoned, she heard the word intoxicado and thought they were saying that he was drunk. The result was tragic, because the doctors saw little urgency in attending to someone who was drunk, and by the time they discovered the real problem, it was too late.  “Intoxicated” can refer to poisoning in English, but its primary meaning is “inebriated.”

False friends are constant reminders of the dangers of literal translation. “A gracious hostess” is polite; on the other hand, una anfitriona graciosa makes us laugh. “The teacher molested the children” is a horrible situation, but El maestro molestó a los niños could mean something totally trivial. “It just hit the target” doesn’t mean Dió justo en el blanco “It hit exactly on target” but rather Apenas le dio al blanco “It barely hit the target.” But remember that “That was just what I needed” can actually be translated Era justo lo que necesitaba because that particular sense of the word “just” does coincide with its Spanish cognate.

The website is a great source of examples of translated words and phrases in context, extracted from  published text. It’s the site I most use when I’m translating documents. Of course, you have to look at the context to see if the examples are relevant, and you have to take care because not all of the translations are correct.

Following are false friends starting with G-O:

Gracioso: “funny”
Gracious: “polite, kind, hospitable”

Idioma: “language, spoken or written tongue”
Idiom: “figure of speech”

Inconsecuente: “inconsistent, contradictory”
Inconsequential: “trivial, of no importance”

Intoxicar: “poison”
Intoxicate: “inebriate”

Introducir: “insert”
Introduce: “make known by name”

Justo: “just, fair; exactly, precisely”
Just: “fair, equitable; only, barely; precisely”

Lenguaje: “terminology, jargon”
Language: “the tongue used by a community”

Maquinista: “train engineer, bus driver; machinist; machine operator”
Machinist: “lathe operator”

Molestar: “bother, pester”
Molest: “abuse sexually”

Noticia: “news”
Notice: “announcement; warning”

Ostensiblemente: “obviously, visibly”
Ostensibly: “supposedly”

Handyman, My life

Flooring, paint, and shirts

My wife has been in Colombia for a month now. She’s due back Friday night. In the meantime, I’ve been painting upstairs and laying laminate flooring. My office is completely done, including the baseboards. The hallway needs baseboards and one more piece of flooring to fill the doorway into my wife’s office/closet/son’s room. Rather than put flooring in that room, I tackled our bedroom instead. It’s at the end of the hall, and there was no convenient way to (temporarily) end the floor at the doorway, so I tore out the carpet and went on in.

Here is what a corner of the bedroom looks like before baseboards. I like white walls. Taupe, cream, beige… depressing. The floor is darker than I wanted but it has a great texture and is very durable. I was all excited about how it ended against the outside wall with full-width pieces… and then I remembered that I had started along that same wall in the next room, so it’s only logical that after working my way out to the hall, down the hall into the bedroom, and then back toward the wall, it would end the same way.

The bedroom and its two closets now have fresh flooring, and the bedroom walls are painted. While I was at it, I tore the nasty peeling wallpaper off the bathroom walls and painted them white as well. I also cut off some of the nasty moldy caulk around the tub.

This evening after I get off work, I’ll start putting baseboards back up, cleaning, putting things back where they go, cleaning, washing the laundry, cleaning, mowing, cleaning… so that the house is ready when Alicia gets back.

In other news, I made a rare stop at K-Mart and found these cool cotton shirts on clearance. I don’t have any shortage of shirts, but I bought four plaids and one of the red Hawaiians.

I think Alicia will like them.

Language, Spanish, Translation

False friends beginning with D-E-F (Spanish-English)

Most of the false friends beginning with D, E, or F have very different meanings, so a transliteration would produce a very inaccurate translation. For instance, Su decepción fue evidente does not mean, “His deception was obvious” but rather, “His disappointment was obvious.” If the director of a company has been destituido, he has been “fired” or “dismissed” but is not necessarily “destitute” because he may have been granted a good severance package. And the idiom en absoluto doesn’t mean “absolutely” but rather “absolutely not”.

I omitted excitar ~ “excite” because they are very close cognates, but it is important to keep in mind that excitar/excitado tends to refer to sexual arousal. “Excite/excited” can as well, but the more common meaning is “enthuse/enthusiastic.”

Decepción: “disappointment, disillusionment”
Deception: “behavior intended to make someone believe something untrue”

Desgracia: “misfortune”
Disgrace: “cause of dishonor”

Destituido: “fired”
Destitute: “broke, penniless”

Discutir: “to argue, debate”
Discuss: “converse on a topic”

Disgusto: “annoyance”
Disgust: “revulsion; cause indignation

Distinto: “different”
Distinct: “clear, obvious; different”

Dormitorio: “bedroom”
Dormitory: “student housing”

Educado: “polite”
Educated: “trained, taught”

En absoluto: “no way, not at all”
Absolutely: “for sure, definitely; completely”

En la vida: “never in my life”
In all my life: “in the sum of my experience”

Etiqueta: “tag; standards of politeness”
Etiquette: “standards of politeness”

Experimentar: “to experience; to experiment”
Experiment: “to test; to attempt something”

Fábrica: “factory”
Fabric: “cloth”

Fabricar: “manufacture”
Fabricate: “create, typically with intent to deceive”

Fastidioso: “irritating”
Fastidious: “overly picky, obsessive”

Formal: (in Colombia) “polite, helpful”
Formal: “official; methodical; conventionally correct”

Fútil: “trivial”
Futile: “activity that is sure to be unsuccessful”

Sample text using this vocabulary:
I was disgusted at the director’s deception, the evidence of which was quite distinct. It was a disgrace to the whole dormitory. The investigator, a very educated man, was fastidious in his attention to detail. During our discussion, he said, “The director must have known that his fabrications would be futile.”
“He told me that if we fired him, he would be destitute,” I said.
Absolutely,” said the investigator. “He spent all the stolen money.”

Very bad translation using false friends:
Quedé disgustado con la decepción del director, cuya evidencia era muy distinta. Era una desgracia para todo el dormitorio. El investigador, un hombre muy educado, era fastidioso en su atención al detalle. Durante nuestra discusión, dijo, “El director tuvo que saber que sus fabricaciones serían fútiles.”
“Me dijo que si lo despedíamos, estaría destituido,” dije.
En absoluto,” dijo el investigador. “Gastó todo el dinero robado.”

Back translation of the very bad translation:
I was annoyed by the director’s disappointment, whose evidence was quite different. It was a misfortune for the whole bedroom. The investigator, a very polite man, was irritating in his attention to detail. During our argument, he said, “The director had to know that the things he built would be trivial.”
“He told me that if we fired him, he would be fired,” I said.
Absolutely not,” said the investigator. “He spent all the stolen money.”

Language, Spanish, Translation

False friends beginning with B-C (Spanish-English)

I was surprised to learn that in many countries, constipado means “congested with a cold” and that estreñido is the equivalent term to “constipated”. This could be important to know if you get sick in Latin America.

In a similar vein, I became confused while translating a Mexican autopsy which reported that the deceased was de complexión pesada. In English, “complexion” refers to the appearance of the facial skin, and “heavy” is not a logical concatenation. With a little research, I discovered that complexión refers to “build” or “physique.” In other words, the deceased was overweight or stout.

The list below doesn’t include it, but it is worth mentioning that the word cómodo (normally translated “comfortable”) can mean “inexpensive” in certain contexts, particularly in Costa Rica. The English word “comfortable” nearly always refers to ergonomics or to lack of stress.

Billón: “a million millions: 1,000,000,000,000, a trillion”
Billion: “a thousand millions: 1,000,000,000”

Cacerola: “pan, pot”
Casserole: “baking dish; food baked in a baking dish”

Colorado: “red”
Colored: “having color” (Formerly used to allude to people of African ancestry)

Comodidad: “comfort”
Commodity: “economic good, article of commerce”

Complexión: “physique, constitution”
Complexion: “appearance of the skin of the face”

Compromiso: “commitment, engagement”
Compromise: “agreement in which each side makes concessions”

Conductor: “driver”
Conductor: “person who collects fares; orchestra director”

Conferencia: “conference, convention; speech”
Conference: “formal meeting for discussion, convention”

Constipado: “congested; has the flu”
Constipated: “unable to empty his/her bowels”

Conveniente: “suitable, proper”
Convenient: “at hand; suited to one’s purposes or comfort”

Corresponder: “be appropriate; reciprocate; belong”
Correspond: “communicate by letter; match or agree almost exactly”

Cuestión: “issue, matter”
Question: “a sentence eliciting information”