A Buen Entendedor: Spanish sayings and expressions

In the Anglo-Saxon world, everyone knows that the first of April is April Fools’ Day. After a decade in Spain, I’m accustomed to watching out for clever attempts to test my incredulity on the “Day of the Innocents”, celebrated on December 28th. If your work is translation, however, every day is a potential April Fools’ Day. You never forget that you are an innocent in a territory only partially familiar, full of opportunities to make terrible linguistic errors. Alianza Editorial has just published a wonderful book by José Luis García Remiro that is a guide to Spanish sayings, refrains and expressions that would be useful to any translator seeking a profound understanding of the erudite and witty asides that pepper Spanish conversation and literature. García Remiro has a long track record of generously providing  readers with explanations and etymologies of the expressions that one hears and reads every day in Spanish without understanding what they really mean and where they sprang from. Prompted by the success of his earlier books ¿Qué queremos decir cuando decimos? and Frases con historia, Alianza convinced the author to put pen to paper once more to delight us with A buen entendedor.

Among the etymologies that could interest a translator is the frequently heard expression “el abrazo del oso”. A misunderstanding  of this expression could be lethal. Far from being the friendly bear hug that former U.S. President Bill Clinton was famous for, it is equivalent to a mafia don’s kiss of death. Spanish abounds in bear metaphors. A buen entendedor also mentions “hacer el oso” (play the fool) and “vender la piel de oso antes de cazarlo” (count one’s chickens before they hatch).

Another expression that had baffled me until Radio España’s Pancracio Celdrán and García Remiro set me right is to spend the night “a la luna de Valencia”. It sounded very romantic to me until these gentlemen explained that it meant “to sleep rough”. It dates back to the time when the gates of the Valencia were closed for the night. If one arrived late, there was no option other than passing the night huddled against the city walls until dawn.

Many Spanish phrases spring from biblical and other historical sources. To “ir de Herodes a Pilates” (to go here and there trying to accomplish something), also expressed as “ir de Anás a Caifás” refers to the Gospel story of the arrest of Jesus. He was shuffled back and forth between authorities― “So Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.” (John 18:13). Another is “de Pascuas a Ramos” (once in a blue moon) that denotes the time between Easter and the following Palm Sunday. A less obvious expression which appears frequently in Spanish literature is “a buenas horas, mangas verdes”, the equivalent of the English expression “too little too late”, or more broadly “where are they when you really need them?” According to García Remiro, this expression refers to the Holy Brotherhood, an order organized by the crown in 1476 to maintain public order in rural areas of Spain. The members of the “Santa Hermandad”, who were easily identifiable by the green sleeves of their jackets, were immortalized in this expression by rural folk who thought that their habit of arriving conspicuously late to the scene of a crime was a calculated strategy to avoid the work of tracking down a criminal and imposing justice. This is the same Holy Brotherhood that questioned an indignant Don Quixote’s code of honor:  Come now; band, not of officers, but of thieves; footpads with the licence of the Holy Brotherhood; tell me who was the ignoramus who signed a warrant of arrest against such a knight as I am? Who was he that did not know that knights-errant are independent of all jurisdictions, that their law is their sword, their charter their prowess, and their edicts their will? Who, I say again, was the fool that knows not that there are no letters patent of nobility that confer such privileges or exemptions as a knight-errant acquires the day he is dubbed a knight, and devotes himself to the arduous calling of chivalry? . . . And, lastly, what knight-errant has there been, is there, or will there ever be in the world, not bold enough to give, single-handed, four hundred cudgellings to four hundred officers of the Holy Brotherhood if they come in his way?

One of my favorite sayings in A buen entendedor is “el chocolate del loro”. As Garía Remiro explains, this expression refers to a pathetic attempt at budget cutting in times of crisis. According to urban legend, an impoverished and out-of-touch upper-class gentleman suggested to his wife that they “stop feeding the parrot chocolate” in order to balance the family budget. There are so many ways to translate this one that I will leave it to the reader’s imagination.