Whose Spanish?

Margaret E. Boyle reviews Janet Hendrickson’s translation of Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco’s 1611 dictionary, Treasure of the Castilian or Spanish Language, and Nicholas R. Jones’s study of “Africanized Castilian” language, Staging ‘Habla de Negros’, for Public Books. I found the discussion of Covarrubias particularly interesting:

Over a century after the imperial events of 1492, an enormous monolingual Spanish dictionary was published, which has now been excerpted and translated into English for the first time, by Hendrickson. Covarrubias’s Treasure of the Castilian or Spanish Language was a new kind of book, one whose function was stunningly unlike Nebrija’s grammar.

Although, on the surface, a dictionary relies on definition and containment, Covarrubias’s volume compels modern readers because of its ongoing contradictions and inconsistencies. Indeed, Hendrickson describes Covarrubias as “profuse,” “digressive,” “funny,” “personable,” and “diaristic.” In fact, Hendrickson explains, “I was distracted from the dictionary’s instrumental function by its seemingly unregulated beauty.” […]

The translation process is unconventional throughout: “This translation erases the greater portion of the Treasure,” explains Hendrickson. “I translated entries, or rather, fragments of entries, that I found of interest, with an eye toward shaping the strange, fabulous histories within the dictionary into a poetic whole. Sometimes I translated stray sentences within entries, sometimes isolated phrases in those sentences, translation and erasure becoming twin procedures. My rule was to follow the order of the original text.” The result of this translation practice is a slim “poetry pamphlet,” which feels all at once historical, ahistorical, and deeply resonant.

Consider Hendrickson’s translation of the entry for estrella (star): “If you find yourself in the depths of a very deep well, where the light does not reach, you will be able to see the stars from that darkness, though it is day, because the sun’s rays there do not hinder them.” This sentence is a nearly direct citation of Covarrubias’s concluding lines from the dictionary entry, and Hendrickson’s version showcases the author’s ability to pull in the reader.

And yet, the full definition from the Spanish original also includes a longer history of astronomy, alternate uses of the word as a verb (estrellarse), as well as colloquial expressions such as this one: “Contar las estrellas: no porque ellas no tenga número, pero es tan grande que no le podemos alcanzar, como las arenas de la mar y las hojas de los árboles.”

I find that kind of abridgment somewhat irritating, but I admit I’d probably enjoy the book. Thanks, jack!


  1. I get your point of view, but to me, it seems like a fantastic way to translate an obsolete but interesting dictionary. For a functional translation of a 17th century dictionary, the readership would essentlially be zero. To get across a sense of what an early dictionary was like to an actual readership, this works for me.

  2. No, I totally agree. As I say, my theoretical desire for a complete job clashes with my practical appreciation for the “good parts” edition (as in Goldman père’s version of S. Morgenstern) — not to mention the readership problem you mention.

  3. SFReader says:

    I have a feeling I just read an abridgement of the abridged version of this dictionary.

    Two memorable “good parts” (and in original Spanish too) and pretty good feeling what books like this were all about.

  4. I’m boggling at the thought of translating a dictionary. Are there translations of other celebrated dictionaries — such as Dr Johnson’s idiosyncratic entries?

    Wouldn’t a non-Castilian speaker (or even a speaker of modern Spanish) need a parallel commentary to explain the digressiveness, etc? Does C17th estrella mean just modern English ‘star’? Or did it have a range of meanings and associations not attached to ‘star’? How would we know whether and how Covarrubias was exceeding the brief?

    Would we even know if the dictionary fulfilled the harmless drudgery of being a dictionary if we get translations only of cherry-picked bon-mots, not to say bon-bons? As opposed to it being one of those spoof dictionaries of (say) Real Estate Agent’s blurb.

  5. SFReader says:

    Have a look at this beauty – Mongol-Chinese-Manchu dictionary translated into Russian and French by Pozdneev


    Absolutely marvelous reading, especially if you don’t know any Mongol, Chinese or Manchu (or Russian for that matter) and have to understand what’s going on only from French text.

    with entries like

    cantate executee au ministere de la guerre pendant le banquet donne aux licenciers militaires

    nom d’une bete a dos long, grele mais tres faible; long

    enseigne ou tableau d’honneur donnes en signe d’approbation apres la mort, aux personnes qui ont ete respectueuses envers leurs parents, eloge fait aux veuves qui sont restees fideles a leurs maris

  6. SFReader says:

    And my favorite entry:

    nom d’un animal d’Amerique dont la queue egale le corps en longueur et qui, lorsqu’il est attaque par des chasseurs, jette ses petits sur son dos et, les preservant de sa queue, s’enfuit

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    It also made me think of Johnson’s dictionary, which generally appears as excerpts of the more idiosyncratic definitions.

    But I’m also not very sure what a translation of a dictionary would be, or do – do you end up with a translation of 16th century Spanish into modern English? Or into 16th century English? Or definitions of 16th century English in modern English? Or…?

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    You got there before me: that’s probably my favourite also, but I do wonder what animal it refers to.

    On the whole it seems a very practical dictionary, listing mostly words one might need if one lived in rural Mongolia. However, I do wonder about hippopotame on the last page: are there a lot of hippopotamuses in Mongolia?

    Living where I do I’ve never felt the need for a word for a bow made from the horns of a yak, but I suppose I might if I lived in Mongolia

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    The babies on its back sounds like a possum, but I know nothing about their tails 🙂

  10. David Marjanović says:

    I do wonder what animal it refers to.


    Edit: the tail is prehensile, and the babies use theirs to cling to their mother’s.

  11. SFReader says:

    Imperial menagerie in Beijing had every exotic animal imaginable. And since for the last seven centuries Mongols were very close to the Chinese state and even closer to Beijing (which was their own capital for quite some time), there are words for many animals which never set foot in Mongolian steppes.

    Even this creature


    has Mongolian name – anaash

  12. Opossum

    There is a monster called 異獣 that features in The Tale of the Ijuu (+illustrations):


  13. I love this, from the first page:

    pch! (pour chasser les oiseaux) hors d’ici! va-t’en

  14. Stars seen from the bottom of a well, and the number of stars like grains of sand or leaves of trees were clichés in my young reading days, and I doubt that they originated with Covarrubias.

  15. ktschwarz says:

    Seeing stars from the bottom of a well is one of the “strange, fabulous histories” that the translator picked out for their fabulousness. It goes back to Aristotle, and there are still people passing it around today, according to Snopes. I wonder if Covarrubias was citing it as a fact or only as a colorful illustrative sentence.

  16. I actually noticed an instance of the “seeing stars from the bottom of a well” while re-reading The Lord of the Rings a few months ago. (To be precise, it involved a narrow, deep canyon rather than a well.)

  17. @Peter Erwin: Having never been particularly exposed to that bit of erroneous folklore about viewing the stars from the depths of a well (and having had, from an early age, a relatively clear understand of where the blue light for the firmament came from), I was never quire sure what to make of that bit from The Return of the King:

    Suddenly he heard the tinkle of water, a sound hard and clear as a stone falling into a dream of dark shadow. Light grew, and lo! the company passed through another gateway, high-arched and broad, and a rill ran out beside them; and beyond, going steeply down, was a road between sheer cliffs, knife-edged against the sky far above. So deep and narrow was that chasm that the sky was dark, and in it small stars glinted. Yet as Gimli after learned it was still two hours ere sunset of the day on which they had set out from Dunharrow; though for all that he could then tell it might have been twilight in some later year, or in some other world.

    The Company now mounted again, and Gimli returned to Legolas. They rode in file, and evening came on and a deep blue dusk; and still fear pursued them. Legolas turning to speak to Gimli looked back and the Dwarf saw before his face the glitter in the Elf’s bright eyes. Behind them rode Elladan, last of the Company, but not the last of those that took the downward road.

    This event, from “The Passing of the Grey Company,” takes place two days before the Dawnless Day, so the Sauron’s darkness is not involved (as also indicated by the “deep blue dusk”). I guess I attributed it to some kind of magical effect.

  18. AJP Crown says:

    pch! (pour chasser les oiseaux) hors d’ici! va-t’en
    Hear, hear.

    What’s the diff. between le camélopard and la girafe besides the etymology? Is the former still used in French?

  19. John Cowan says:

    Seemingly not: French Wikt tags it as Désuet, which it defines as ‘Inusité, qui n’est plus employé par la langue moderne’, which is the kind of French even I can read.

    This term is contrasted with Vieilli ‘Mot ou expression qui n’est presque plus utilisée dans ce sens mais encore d’usage’ and with Archaïque ‘Qualifie un mot ancien qui n’est plus d’usage à la suite d’un changement des règles de la langue (par exemple les terminaisons en -ois du français remplacées par -ais)’.

    English Wikt doesn’t even have an entry for camélopard.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    The name “giraffe” has its earliest known origins in the Arabic word zarāfah (زرافة),[2] perhaps borrowed from the animal’s Somali name geri.[3] The Arab name is translated as “fast-walker”.[4] There were several Middle English spellings, such as jarraf, ziraph, and gerfauntz. The Italian form giraffa arose in the 1590s. The modern English form developed around 1600 from the French girafe.[2] “Camelopard” is an archaic English name for the giraffe deriving from the Ancient Greek for camel and leopard, referring to its camel-like shape and its leopard-like colouring.[5][6]

    Giraffa camelopardalis is, well, at least the Nubian and Rothschild’s giraffe.

  21. gerfauntz
    English totally should have kept that spelling!

  22. AJP Crown says:

    n’est presque plus utilisée dans ce sens mais encore d’usage
    dans ce sens? There’s some other sense where you might find a spotted camel? Still turns up occasionally, I think they mean. A bit.

    English Wikt doesn’t even have an entry for camélopard.
    No. I suppose we got our giraffes off the Africans direct; not via Greeks & Romans.

  23. John Cowan says:

    The English Wikt (and likewise the French one, the German one, the Russian one, etc.) is a dictionary of Everything-to-English (-to-French, to-German, . That is, the words being defined can come from any language, but the definitions, etymologies, usage notes, and so on are in English. So for example there is an entry for girafe, for Giraffe, for καμηλοπάρδαλη, for жираф, etc. etc., all defined in English. I presume there is no English Wikt entry for camélopard because it is désuet.

  24. January First-of-May says:

    with entries like

    My favorite so far, seven pages in, is (in Russian) вонючая [sic] ясень (ailantus [sic] glandulosa).

    This appears to be the modern Ailanthus altissima; the common names provided in Russian Wikipedia do contain both parts of the supposed Russian name in the dictionary (though not together).

    EDIT: I liked the “six cardinal points” on page 11. Very scientific! I wish more languages/cultures had this concept.

    EDIT 2: on page 15 Russian белуга was apparently mistranslated into French as dauphin blanc “white dolphin”, confusing the beluga sturgeon with the beluga whale. (The entry also refers to sturgeons, so it probably didn’t mean the whale.)

  25. SFReader says:

    Page 18 has quite useful concept – the Russian version says “colleagues, those who passed the exam together, coworkers”.

    Passing the exam together certainly creates a certain bond – good to have a word for it.

  26. Here in America, “those who passed the exam together” are called “class of …” close to Russian однокашники.

  27. Here in America, “those who passed the exam together” are called “class of …”

    Not really. I mean, there are plenty of members of the Class of [Year], especially in large schools, who never took any of the same exams. It would be nice to have a word that expressed that particular concept.

  28. Trond Engen says:

    SFReader: Page 18 has quite useful concept – the Russian version says “colleagues, those who passed the exam together, coworkers”

    Passing the exam together certainly creates a certain bond – good to have a word for it.

    In the case of a professional exam, “those who passed the same exam” would be equivalent to ‘colleagues’ in the extended meaning “those in the same profession”. I could ask if the original Mongol really says “passed the exam together” or “passed the same exam”, but the former is a straightforward specialization of the latter, maybe through something like “cohort colleague” or “contemporary colleague”.

    Hat: It would be nice to have a word that expressed that particular concept.

    ‘Coexaminand’? ‘Coexaminee’? Or, thinking of it, ‘cohort’?

  29. Stu Clayton says:

    Cofinals. At least for math majors.

  30. John Cowan says:

    Well, it depends. U.S. lawyers are colleagues, but that does not mean that all of them have passed the same bar examination. There is the Uniform Bar Examination that 33 states (and some non-state jurisdictions) accept, and then the other 17 states and other jurisdictions have their own exams. Doctors, on the other hand, do take nationwide medical exams in addition to whatever exams their medical school may impose.

  31. I suspect this is inseparable from China’s long tradition of a nationwide exam everyone must pass in order to advance to greater things.

  32. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Note that cofinal is not the categorical dual of final but the order-theoretical dual of coinitial. Whereas in categories, coinitial is the same as terminal. Context is everything.

  33. Stu Clayton says:

    That can’t be quite right. In the category of blog discourse, discussions are non-terminal. Every context has a pretext. These can be seen to be equifinal by discovering what someone is on about.

  34. John Cowan says:

    Learning about data and codata was quite hard enough.

  35. Stu Clayton says:

    Codata – are those alternative facts ?

  36. SFReader says:

    Starting to wonder about connection between pile and kopile in Croatian

  37. Stu Clayton says:

    “Chicken” and “bastard” ??

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