Multiculturality, Music, Spanish

Mi burrito sabanero

This song was composed for the holiday season in 1972 by the famed Venezuelan composer Hugo Blanco (known for the song Moliendo Café) and has become a Christmas favorite in much of Latin America. My wife Alicia Isabel Santacruz recorded this version some years ago, with a light arrangement by Jaime Chávez.

Lyrics (English below):

Con mi burrito sabanero voy camino de Belén
con mi burrito sabanero voy camino de Belén
Si me ven, si me ven voy camino de Belén
si me ven, si me ven voy camino de Belén
El cielito montañero ilumina mi sendero
El cielito montañero ilumina mi sendero
Si me ven, si me ven voy camino de Belén
Si me ven, si me ven voy camino de Belén
Tuqui tuqui tuqui tuqui, tuqui tuqui tuqui ta
Aapurate mi burrito que ya vamos a llegar
Tuqui tuqui tuqui tuqui, tuqui tuqui tuqui tu
Apúrate mi burrito vamos a ver a Jesús

With my little grassland donkey, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
With my little grassland donkey, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
If you see me, if you see me, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
If you see me, if you see me, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
The mountain sky lights my way
The mountain sky lights my way
If you see me, if you see me, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
If you see me, if you see me, I’m on my way to Bethlehem
Tuki tuki tuki tuki, tuki tuki tuki ta
Hurry my little donkey, we’re about to  arrive
Tuki tuki tuki tuki, tuki tuki tuki tu
Hurry my little donkey, we’re going to see Jesus

Language, Music, My life, Spanish, Translation

The loveliest version of the loveliest tango…

…is this recording made of El día que me quieras by my wife, Alicia Isabel Santacruz. I have scoured the internet, and have not found a better performance.

It was written by Alfredo Le Pera and Carlos Gardel, and featured in a movie by the same name in 1935, performed by Gardel. Alicia’s recording was released a couple of years ago but is not widely available.


Following are the lyrics, along with my translation:

Acaricia mi ensueño el suave murmullo de tu suspirar
Como ríe la vida si tus ojos negros me quieren mirar
Y si es mío el amparo de tu risa leve que es como un cantar
Ella aquieta mi herida. Todo, todo se olvida

El día que me quieras la rosa que engalana
Se vestirá de fiesta con su mejor color
Y al viento las campanas dirán que ya eres mía
Y locas las fontanas se contarán su amor

La noche que me quieras desde el azul del cielo
Las estrellas celosas nos mirarán pasar
Y un rayo misterioso hará nido en tu pelo
Luciernaga curiosa que verá que eres mi consuelo

The soft murmur of your sighing caresses my reverie
How life will laugh if your dark eyes choose to see me
And if the refuge of your light song-like laughter is mine
It will soothe my wound. All, all is forgotten
The day that you love me, the rose that adorns
will put on party clothes of its favorite color
And the bells will tell the wind that you are finally mine
The fountains, delirious, will tell each other of their love
The night that you love me, from the blue of the sky
the jealous stars will watch us go by
And a mysterious ray will make its nest in your hair
A curious firefly that will see that you are my solace


Language, Multiculturality, Translation

When no means yes, 7 = 8, 14 = 15, and 20 = 21 = 22

Translation brings to light all the odd things about language.

In Latin America, “No” is used as a general interjection like “oh” or “um”, often combined with “pues,” another interjection that has little meaning. A sentence that starts with “No, pues, es que estuvimos…” might be be translated as “Oh, well, we were…” or “Yes, but the thing is that we were…” or “No, because we were…” depending on context.

One of the oddest Spanish concatenations is the expression “No, pues sí,” which literally means “No, well, yes”:

“¿Pasaste por la tienda?”
“No, pues sí, pero no había de eso.”

“Did you go to the store?”
“Oh, yeah, but they didn’t have any.”

We English speakers all know that a week has seven days, so two weeks is 14 days, three weeks is 21, and so on. In Spanish, however, “ocho días” (eight days) to refers to a period of week. A week from today is “en ocho días” because today and next Wednesday both get counted. Two weeks is “quince días” (15 days) by the same principle.

When you get to three weeks, however, things get tricky. In Costa Rica it’s “veintidós días” (22 days) but in Colombia it’s “veinte días” (20 days).

However… four weeks is not “29 días”. It’s “cuatro semanas” (four weeks) or “treinta días” (30 days), either of which may refer either to the same day of the month (the 18th of July) or the same day of the week (Wednesday four weeks from now). Dates that far out are likely to be fuzzy in any case, so your best bet is to check a few days before to find out when you are expected (or if they even remember that you had an appointment).

Language, Movie review, Multiculturality

Bad writing, bad translations

Alicia and I made the mistake of watching The Colony the other night. It was stupid! I should have checked Rotten Tomatoes first: “A formulaic sci-fi thriller, The Colony features cliched dialogue, cheesy special effects, and underdeveloped characters.”

Future Ice Age people living underground deal with illness, internal conflicts, and devolved cannibals while searching satellite images for a warmer place.

Trust me, it’s not as good as it sounds. The following are not spoilers, because the movie already stinks:

• There are dozens of cannibals running around together. They communicate by roars like zombies, but they’re fast, and intelligent enough to use the air duct system to break into a locked colony. But when half of their group gets killed in action, the other half doesn’t collect the bodies.

• They abandon a room full of dead colonists to chase after the main character and invade his colony.

• They kill as fast as they can rather than taking prisoners so they can have fresh meat later.

• When the main character clubbed the top cannibal (a White Orc ripoff) to the ground and started to walk away, Alicia said, “He’s going to grab his foot.” Sure enough, a second later, the battered and bleeding cannibal grabbed the dude’s ankle, and they fought some more.

• After the final battle in which the cannibals are destroyed but the colony is severely damaged, the survivors immediately start walking north to look for the oasis (a small warm spot created by a revived weather intervention tower), instead of checking for other survivors and whether anything can be salvaged from their greenhouse, animal cages, or seed warehouse.

• The main dude does have four jars of seeds he had grabbed earlier. “At least we’ll have a fighting chance,” he says. That’s brilliant writing right there.

We watched Despicable Me 2 and thoroughly enjoyed it. Then we watched Turbo and enjoyed it even more. Both of us laughed out loud many times. Much of the humor worked well in Spanish: “I’m the Shadow!”

We have also been watching Dr Who, using subtitles I downloaded from the internet. Unfortunately, the subtitles are really bad, apparently created by teenagers in Argentina and Spain. Sometimes they’re literal translations that make no sense, and other times the translators heard wrong or had no idea what was being said.

The episode coming up is The Doctor’s Daughter, which is bad writing on another level. Why was this character created? Once created, why does she never show up again? We shall never know.

I have been reading aloud a Spanish translation of The Wind in the Willows, and Alicia has been entranced. It’s not a bad translation overall, but there are annoying details. The translator nearly always refers to paws as pezuñas, which are actually hoofs, and certain idioms are translated literally rather than using an equivalent Spanish expression: un minuto o dos “a minute or two” rather than un par de minutos “a pair of minutes”.

Language is weird stuff. Did you know that Secretaría General can mean “Office of Legal Counsel”? None of the translation websites will tell you that. I was translating an org chart today from a Latin American government agency, and when I looked at the statutes that describe each office, the Secretaría General was in charge of all legal matters for that agency, including a lot of legal administrative stuff which would fall under the term “Secretariat” (now that I’ve looked up what Secretariat means). I used Office of Legal Counsel, but maybe Secretariat would have been better, although American agencies don’t have Secretariats. Oh, well…

Have yourself a good weekend. And if you watch a foreign film and it doesn’t make sense, remember: translators make mistakes. So do scriptwriters.

Colombia, Language, Multiculturality

Saying “you” three different ways

As a linguist, and having grown up reading the King James Bible and Shakespeare, I get extremely irritated when ignorant people goof around with “thou” conjugation and add “-eth” or “-est” to adjectives, nouns, wherever they think it might be funny. There is a mystique associated with “thou” because of its use in the King James. But its use was not complicated, although its conjugation can be. “Thou” was originally the singular form, and “you” plural. With time, “thou” became the familiar form and “you” the respectful form. By the late 1600s, “thou” fell into disuse, and now we use “you” for everyone.

Spanish has a more complicated pronoun history, and remains more complex than English. In school you were taught “tú” and “usted” for “you”. “Usted” conjugates with “él/ella” and is the respectful form, “tú” is the familiar, paralleling “you” and “thou”.

However, in real life, vast sections of Latin America use a third form, “vos”. If you hear it in a song, the singer or songwriter is probably Argentinean. But in conversation, you’ll also hear it in parts of Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay… It’s rare in the Caribbean, and in Spain “vos” is only used in court.

I learned Spanish in the southwest of Colombia (Pasto and Puerto Asís). Nearly all of our conversation used “usted” (or “busté” as my buddy Pedrito would say). When we moved to Medellín, we had to start using “tú”, plus they also used “vos”, which we had never heard at all before. This took a lot of getting used to.

Roughly speaking, “vos” is familiar/casual (like “dude”), “tú” is familiar/standard (like “you”), and “usted” is respectful (like “sir”). People are not necessarily consistent, plus it varies by region and even family. My wife Alicia, however, is extremely systematic and consistent in how she uses the terms of address.

She always uses “tú” with her son. He also addresses her with “tú”.

With shop girls and street vendors, she uses “vos”. They will respond with “usted” or “tú”, depending on where they’re from.

With her siblings, she uses “usted” if it’s a serious conversation (like if she’s lecturing or advising them, which is frequently the case). She uses “vos” for casual or joking conversation with them. (Her siblings use “tú” or “vos” all the time, and rarely use “usted” with family.)

With friends, she uses “tú”, and occasionally will joke with “vos”.

With me, she always uses “tú”. I sometimes use “vos” with her, especially if I’m being silly. Once I used the “usted” imperative form (asking her to hand me something), and she was hurt. (I grew up using the respectful imperative and didn’t learn the familiar “tú” imperative until college. I still have to think about it sometimes.)

Here are examples of the three in imperative (command) form. The respectful imperative uses a subjunctive conjugation (another feature that has largely disappeared from English). The familiar imperative uses the same form as third person singular present tense, excepting a few irregular verbs. The “vos” form is usually a modification of the “vosotros” form (plural of “tú”, used primarily in Spain), with some exceptions, as you can see below. Sometimes it’s appropriate to add a pronoun suffix (-te, -se, -os, -me):

Usted          Tú              Vos               Vosotros
¡Venga!        ¡Ven!           ¡Vení!            ¡Venid!             “Come!”
Coma           Come           Comé             Comed             “Eat”
Vaya             Vete             Vete               Id                      “Go”
¡Cállese!     ¡Cállate!      ¡Callate!        ¡Callaos!           “Shut up!”

Simple, huh?

Multiculturality, My life

Just call me Gaspode

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, there is a dog that spent too many nights sleeping in the shelter of Unseen University (the school of magic) and has developed the ability to speak. Since dogs don’t speak, people who hear him usually think they’re hearing their own thoughts. The dog (Gaspode) uses this to his advantage: “Why don’t I give the nice dog a biscuit?”

Yesterday Alicia and I visited a pleasant Hispanic church a couple of miles from our house. As soon as we walked in and found a seat, someone on the platform started interpreting everything the worship leader said into English. An usher came over and introduced himself in English. I answered in Spanish. He responded in English, and we went on this way for a couple of minutes before he finally caught on and switched to Spanish.

A few minutes later, a boy came and asked if I needed an interpreter. I said no.

We participated actively in the singing and the greeting time and the offering, all of which were done in Spanish. Then the worship leader took the pulpit and gave his entire message in English, with a lady interpreting to Spanish. It was followed by the Lord’s Supper (led by a different man), done in Spanish with interpretation to English.

I got the distinct impression that the English was all for my benefit.

On our way out, we greeted several of the church staff. Two of them talked to me in English even after I spoke in Spanish.

It seems people can’t believe their ears: This guy is obviously a gringo, so there’s no way he speaks fluent Spanish. It happens all the time in stores and airports and churches.

I need to find ways to use this to my advantage. Otherwise I’ll just keep being frustrated at how dense people are.