Cultural Notes on Translation

Cultural Note I: Note on Spanish Dictionaries and the Alphabet

The 10th Congress of the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language in 1994 determined that the combinations ch and ll would no longer be alphabetized separately. Prior to then, words beginning with ch were found in the dictionary between those words beginning in c and d. (Had this not happened, in the vocabulary lists under Sustantivos, you would have found chico and chica after ciudad.) Likewise, words starting with ll were found between l and m. The position of the letter ñ between n and o remains unchanged. Though extremely few words begin with ñ, its placement also applies to alphabetization when the sound occurs in the middle of a word. The word español, therefore, is found after the word espantar (“to frighten,” “to scare”). (The rr [or, in initial position, r/R] is considered a separate sound but not a separate letter of the alphabet.) Check the publication date of the dictionary you are using if you do not find words beginning with these letters where you expect them.

Cultural Note II: Book and Film Titles in Spanish and English

Whether being translated from Spanish to English or vice versa, there is no simple guideline for translation except that the title must “sound good” in the target language. Oftentimes marketing considerations play a role in making these choices, as does the popularity of the work. Literal translations, as is the case of García Márquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad), often work fine. Such is also the case of Laura Esquivel’s novel and the film based on it, Como agua para chocolate, in English, Like Water for Chocolate. John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is translated literally as Las uvas de la ira, as is Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, rendered as La buena tierra. Other titles, however, are changed substantially or completely, as literal translations do not work or make sense in the target language. While Manuel Puig’s novel Beso de la mujer araña has an exact translation in its English version (Kiss of the Spider Woman), an earlier novel of his, Boquitas pintadas (literally, “Little Lipsticked Mouths”) was given the completely different English title Heartbreak Tango. Other titles undergo a slight modification, such as Puig’s La traición de Rita Hayworth (literally, “Rita Hayworth’s Betrayal”), which in English became Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. Similarly, Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind underwent a slight modification for the Spanish translation and the film to Lo que el viento se llevó (literally, “What the Wind Carried Away.”) Later films, such as the 1999 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar winner Todo sobre mi madre has a literal translation in its English title, All About My Mother, while Y tu mamá también retained its Spanish title for its English-language release, as the literal translation (“And Your Mother Too”) lacks the connotation of the literal Spanish equivalent. The title of the 2006 film Volver (literally, “to return”) was not translated to English. Other films undergo a slight modification in translation, as did the Spanish award-winning 2010 film set in Bolivia También la lluvia, which became Even the Rain.

Cultural Note III: First Names (Nombres de pila)

Although translation of proper names is not usually necessary, there are some first names in Spanish that cause particular confusion. While many first names are identical (Hugo, Rita), others have obvious equivalents (María, Roberto), and others are easily or conceivably guessable (Miguel [Michael], Jorge ([George], José [Joseph]), confusing names exist, at times to the point of their gender not being obvious. Some of these names include:

Belén literally “Bethlehem,” a woman’s name
Carmen no English equivalent, almost always a woman’s name
Cielo no common English equivalent, often religious in origin, a woman’s name
Concepción no English equivalent, almost always a woman’s name, religious in origin, nickname Concha
Consuelo no English equivalent, always a woman’s name, religious in origin, nickname Chelo
Cruz literally “cross,” a woman’s name
Dolores used in English (as “Dolores” or “Delores”), religious in origin, nickname Lola or Lolita
Guadalupe no English equivalent, always a woman’s name, religious in origin, nickname Lupe
Guillermina Wilhelmina (much more common in Spanish than English)
Guillermo William (nickname, Memo)
Inmaculada no English equivalent, a woman’s name, religious in origin
Jaime James (not “Jamie”), always a man’s name
Lourdes named after the shrine in France where Bernadette Soubirous had visions of the Virgin Mary, a woman’s name
Mercedes at times used in English, always a woman’s name, religious in origin
Pilar no English equivalent, a woman’s name, religious in origin
Rocío no English equivalent, a woman’s name, religious in origin
Rosario no English equivalent, always a woman’s name, religious in origin, nickname Charo or Chari
Socorro no English equivalent, a woman’s name, religious in origin
Soledad literally “Solitude,” a woman’s name, religious in origin
  • There are many other lower-frequency names in Spanish that are untranslatable in English. Those ending in –a are almost always for females; those ending in –o</span, for males. Here are examples of a few: Rigoberta, Rigoberto, Aldonza, Edelberto, Filiberto, Fernanda.
  • María combines with a great number of names, almost always religious in nature, for example, María de la Luz (literally, “Mary of the Light”) and María Teresa (nickname, Maite, Mayte or Marité).
  • Some men’s names are religious in origin, but are not used in English: Jesús, Angel.
  • Spanish also employs mixed-gender names, almost always of a religious origin. In these cases, the first of the two names indicates the gender: José María (man’s name, nickname Chema), María Jesús (woman’s name, nickname Chus).
  • Other nicknames not of a religious nature include Nando and Fercho for Fernando; Juanjo for Juan José and Isa for Isabel.

This is only a small sampling including some of the more common of a great number of possibilities.

Cultural Note IV: Telling Time in Spanish

¿Qué hora es? What time is it?
Es la una. It’s 1:00.
Son las dos. It’s 2:00.
Son las tres de la mañana. It’s 3:00 am.
Son las cuatro de la tarde. It’s 4:00 p.m.
Son las diez de la noche. It’s 10:00 p.m.
Son las cinco y media. It’s 5:30.
Son las seis y treinta.  It’s 6:30.
Son las siete y cuarto. It’s 7:15.
Son las ocho menos cuarto. It’s 7:45.
Son quince para las nueve. It’s 8:45.
Son las once en punto. It’s 11:00 on the dot.


  1. A singular verb is normally used to ask what time it is, and is used to give the answer if it is 1:00, noon (mediodía) or midnight (medianoche). Otherwise the plural form son is used.
  2. The phrase de la mañana is the equivalent of “a.m.,” while the phrases de la tarde and de la noche are the equivalents of “p.m.”
  3. “Half past” the hour may be expressed by y media or y treinta.
  4. “Fifteen after the hour” may be expressed by y cuarto or y quince.
  5. “A quarter till the hour” may be expressed by menos cuarto or quince (un cuarto) para + the coming hour.
  6. All other minutes after the hour take the same numbers as in English.
Nuestra clase comienza a la una y veinte. Our class begins at 1:20.



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