Palabra de Cine

     Zaragoza loves the movies. For a city with a population of under 700,000, the number of movie theatres, film festivals, continuing education courses related to the cinema, and film series offered by private and public cultural institutions it supports puts it on a cultural par with many larger cities. Film screenings are an integral part of the public programs offered by a wide range of institutions, from the cultural centers operated by regional savings banks and the city-supported arthouse cinema, to neighborhood libraries, labor unions, and social groups. There seems to be a general consensus among the city’s cultural, social, and educational institutions that good films should not only be made accessible to the general public but also analyzed and discussed, often face to face with the filmmakers.

     One of the best of these initiatives is the “Buena Estrella”, an ongoing series of public encounters between the public and film industry professionals coordinated and moderated by University of Zaragoza professor Luis Alegre.  The program is remarkably user-friendly (I receive announcements of upcoming presentations by email throughout the academic year) and impressively inclusive and unpretentious. Every sort of citizen attends these events, where working class grandmothers and die-hard film buffs line up side by side to ask questions and make comments.

     Recently Alegre invited film director, critic and author, José Luis Borau to talk about his latest book Palabra de Cine, Su influencia en nuestro lenguaje. One of Zaragoza’s cultural native sons (another being the legendary Luis Buñuel), Borau  didn’t disappoint his home town audience.

      Palabra de Cine is a conscientious study of how the cinema has influenced what Borau is careful to refer to as peninsular Spanish and the references he provides and the commentaries he makes in his book do mostly pertain to cinematographic terms and expressions that have become a part of the continental Spanish vocabulary. For other Spanish speakers and those of us who speak Spanish as a second language, the book serves as a guide for deciphering popular expressions used by Spaniards and gives insight into the effects of the censorship that dogged Spanish filmmakers during the Franco dictatorship.

      Borau divides Palabra de Cine into three parts, beginning with examples of how cinematic expressions, terminology, and lines from popular movies have been employed by everyone from politicians to poets. In the second part he provides an annotated list of technical terms and lines from films that are part of everyday Spanish vocabulary. He wraps up the book with a filmography that notes both the Spanish and original titles of foreign films he has cited.  While this last section might be considered by some to be superfluous, for me it is a goldmine as many classic American films have radically different titles here in Spain. How could one possibly recognize La cena de los acusados as the 1934 classic The Thin Man or Loquilandia as Hellzapoppin’ without a reliable bilingual reference list?

      Without shedding undue tears over the cultural imperialism of the English language, the author defends the use of foreign words and terms currently in circulation that have no succinct equivalent in Spanish, such as flashback, travelling, suspense, thriller, zoom, screwball comedy, gag, gangster, remake, and fan. He recounts the story of a roundtable of experts that included Julio Casares, Eugenio D’Ors, and Eduardo Marquina that was convened in 1941 to suggest Spanish translations for foreign terminology related to filmmaking and concludes that their linguistic advice fell on deaf ears.

      Among the changes suggested by Casares, D’Ors, and Marquina were the substitution of playback with fonogonias, sonido superpuesto, or acoplamiento and the replacement of travelling with estrofa, cámara seguidora, or máquina sobre carriles. Borau himself offers the possibility of sonido pregrabado for playback, and for travelling he suggests dropping the Anglo-Saxon final g, substituting the double l with a single l, and adding an accent to denote the word as esdrújula to create the Spanish word “travelín”.

      During his chat in Zaragoza, Borau colorfully described the strong influence that Mexican films had on continental Spanish in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He claimed that before the arrival of Mexican movies, the word “macho” was only used to describe male farm animals, particularly mules and burros.  In Spain “machista” is used as adjective rather than the term “macho” employed by English speakers. Macho is used as a noun,  generally in the same playful way that one refers to another person in Spanish as “hombre”, “tío”, or here in Aragon, “maño”.

      There is also no doubt in Borau’s mind that literal translations for subtitles and the doubling of American Westerns have left an indelible mark on Spanish. He gives the frequent use of the expression “morir con las botas puestas” in detriment to the traditional “morir al pie de cañon” is a cogent example of the influence of motion pictures in daily speech.  I agree with him that people say “mucho jefe y poco indio” when they complain about colleagues at the office. Another Hollywood genre has left its linguistic mark with the words “gangster” and “pasta”, the literal translation of “dough”. Borau muses that “pasta” at least enjoys a tenuous link to its old meaning of “porción de oro, plata u otro metal fundido y sin labrar”.

      Borau is quick to point out that Hollywood’s treatment of more serious themes has also inspired new words in Spanish. He claims that the  verb “linchar” and the noun “linchamiento” both sprang directly from movie themes related to lynching. He also cites media use of the phrase “la gran esperanza blanca” as directly inspired by the title of Martin Ritt’s The Great White Hope”.

      As there are far more Spanish speakers in Latin and South America than there are in Spain, films dubbed and subtitled for an international Spanish- speaking public often sound a bit strange in Spain. Borau offers the Spanish title of the Woody Allen film Take the Money and Run as an example. This title was translated as Tomar el dinero y corre instead of “Coger el dinero y corre” in deference to Latin American audiences who could possibly take offence at the use of the verb coger.  In the movies, apartment is never translated as piso, the word used in Spain, but as either apartamento or apartamiento to suit theater-goers in the Americas. One or the other in a single film, Borau advises, recalling in his book that Audrey Hepburn’s character used the two versions interchangeably in the dubbed version of Charade.  He credits Billy Wilder’s The Apartment with introducing the word apartamento definitively into the Spanish vocabulary but to my ear, it is a word still only used by foreigners.

       Another successful implant has been the verb aparcar, from the English verb to park, that now rivals the correct Spanish verb estacionar. This introduction has been linguistically somewhat subversive as its metaphoric use has also been widely accepted and one often hears “aparcar un asunto”or “aparcar una decision” instead of “posponer”.  Another introduction that Borau mentions that strikes me as subversively conceptual was the literal translation of the title of Stanley Kramer’s hit Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Spanish is practically devoid of equivalents to English’s plethora of linguistic ways to beat around the bush. No one ever says in Spanish “Guess who I saw in the street today” or “I was wondering if I should call him up”. Nevertheless, “Adivina quién viene” has caught on.  Borau cites its use in a November 14, 2005 headline in El País about the imminent visit of Hu Jintao to Madrid.

      Borau is less liberal about the adoption of foreign words that spring from the same Latin root as Spanish words but that do not carry the same meaning. Ever on the lookout for linguistic irregularities, he points out that airline stewardesses should not remind passengers about the “sequencia de medidas que deberán adoptar como precaución” as the only two exceptions for secuencia currently allowed by the Diccionario ideológico de la lengua española and María Moliner’s Diccionario de uso del español  are “prosa o verso que se dice en ciertas misas después del gradual” and “sucesión de planos que integran una unidad de tiempo y en el espacio de una película”. He goes on to gently correct Moliner for referring to “planos” when the correct term in his estimation is “escenas”.  He also criticizes the increasing use of “nominado” for “candidato” in Spanish, citing the Academia del Cine Español’s errant invention of a “fiesta de los nominados” several years ago.

      I was delighted when Borau traced the source of a term that had baffled me for years to the cinema: “rebeca” as a synonym for cardigan sweater. It seems that the sweaters that Joan Fontaine wore in the Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca created such a fashion rage in Spain that the name of the film became permanently associated with the style. As recently as April 15 of this year I saw it used in an article published in El Mundo that seized upon on the American first lady’s penchant for cardigans, jesting, “Michelle Obama comienza a paracerse a la debilitada Joan Fontaine en Rebeca…”  Palabra de Cine also includes an anecdote about Galerias Preciados unsuccessful attempt to launch a fashion sensation similar to the rebeca based on the twinset worn by Joan Fontaine in another Hitchcock movie. It seems that fashion lightning seldom strikes twice and Spanish women were not seduced into buying a twinset called as “sospecho”, after the Spanish title for Suspicion.

       A significant part of Borau’s book is dedicated to lines from famous films that are repeated over and over again in both written and spoken Spanish. “Elemental mi querido Watson” is an instantly recognizable example. Not surprisingly, Casablanca has been a top contributor of enduring refrains to Spanish popular culture, although the most popular lines in Spanish differ from those in English. “Tócalo Sam” doesn’t have the swing of the heavily embroidered English line “Play it again Sam”, but “Siempre nos quedará Paris” (We’ll always have Paris) has retained its original sparkle in Spain despite years of mawkish recital and savage satire. The favorite line from Casablanca in Spanish is, however, the comment that Rick makes to Louis Renalt at the end of the film: “Éste es el comienzo de una hermosa amistad” (“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” in the original). The touching and fragile détente between a French gendarme towing the Vichy line and an American sympathizer of Republican Spain has never been lost on a Spanish audience.  Perhaps it is this final note of a reconciliation of bitter differences that has enduringly captured the Spanish imagination.

      In addition to Palabra de Cine, José Luis Borau has written film criticism, works of fiction, and edited the Diccionario de cine español. His is the director of numerous films and has also worked in television. At the age of 81 he continues to write and lecture and is a distinguished member of the Real Academía Española.

image from Borau's film los Furtivos

Palabra de Cine, Su influencia en nuestro lenguaje                                             José Luis Borau                                                                                                          Ediciones Península 2010 ISBN 978-8307-894-5