Having Pancakes

So I have this conversation all the time:

Other Person:  Hey JP, how do you say “have” in Spanish?

JP:  What’s the context?

Other Person:  There’s no context, just “have.”  You know, like “have.”

If I had a nickel for every time someone gave me that “no context” line, I could probably fill a gallon jug with all those nickels and, and throw them over a freeway overpass, causing untold chaos and long-lasting heartache and destruction.  So for the love of God, keep your nickels.

It’s not always Spanish, sometimes people ask me for French or Chinese.   It’s usually not “have,” it’s usually something a little more obscure, like “loneliness” or “intrauterine” or “jelly doughnut.”  But then they always say that “no context” line, and then “you know, like…” and then they repeat the exact word, giving exactly zero additional information.

Back in Shanghai, when I worked at the old SpanishPod, I had this conversation daily, and I never, never gave anyone a translation without first hearing some context.  As a company, we had some academic integrity to uphold, and I wasn’t about to let anyone publish a janky translation because were too damn lazy and unimaginative to give me  a sample sentence with a little bit of grammatical or contextual information.

You know why?  Because at the time, I was a once and future high school teacher, and I know that the moment I answer

“tener” is the Spanish word for “have”

that they are likely to come up with some horribly janky translation, and that janky translation will show up in a lesson, and people will see the jankiness and know that we were just an office full of 20-somethings who just randomly happened to be in China.

They will. go. live. with a sentence like this:

*Yo tener panqueques esta mañana.
I to have pancakes this morning.  

Never mind that they didn’t conjugate the verb.  Even if they did, they would still come up with a creepy, janky sentence:  Yo tuve panqueques esta mañana.

I would point that out, and they will INEVITABLY say “what?  I was trying to say…”

… at which point I would interrupt and say, “I know what you were trying to say. You failed to say that.”

They were trying to say “I had pancakes this morning.”  Unfortunately what they ended up saying was “I had pancakes this morning,” which is weird.  In English, “having pancakes” implies the action of eating.  So what they were really saying was that they ate pancakes.

Unfortunately, by insisting on translating the word “have” they ended up saying that they literally “had” pancakes this morning.  They had them.  The pancakes were there, in their possession.  They didn’t eat them, they just had them.  Perhaps they held the pancakes in their hands; perhaps the pancakes for a moment in time were tagged with a “property of….” sticker.  There is no claim as to what became of those pancakes, only that they were had; owned… possessed.  The end.  

But YOU told me “to have” is “tener!”

This is what I have to deal with, and this is why I don’t hand out one word translations without context like some freaking Oprah’s Favorite Words.  You get a translation!  And you get a translation!

Monolingual people who have never studied language (and some bilingual people, trust me) have this horrible hypothesis that there is a one-to-one correspondence between words in English and words of the target language, and that learning the language is just a matter of substituting out the English words.

One time my students came across the expression ¡qué va!, and they asked me, so I told them it was an expression, you use it the same way you use “hell no!”  So for a few minutes there was a brief whisper mill that hell = qué and no = va.  I was amazed; I thought, wow these students will do anything but listen for the actual answer.

The following year I had a difficult class, and they were trying to paint me into a corner about whether tener meant “to have” or “to eat,” because it’s obviously one or the other, and their dads were lawyers, so obviously they were hella good at… whatever it was.  It either means “have” or “eat” so quit jerking us around and just tell us what’s on the quiz.

I was trying to not make them feel stupid about their… stupidity, and I told them, look, we teach this subject this way because we know it, we learned it, and we’ve seen the research, and we know that this is the way that it works best.  Your job is not to challenge me, it’s to come with me.  Some words and expressions are not the same across languages.  If they were, we’d just give you a list, and you could go memorize it, and then when you’ve memorized that list of words, you could swap them out and speak perfect Spanish.  But that’s not the way it works.

That’s the way it SHOULD work; that would be awesome.

Yes, then we could all skip around and hi-five each other, and drink cokes and be awesome.

Anyway, the fastest way to a janky, embarrassingly bad translation is to a) ask for single words out of context, and b) not run it by a native speaker.

Running your translations by a native speaker is just a no-brainer, I don’t know why it’s so hard for people.  I’m thinking of the time once I was offered a voice-over job in Shanghai, and some woman had done a crappy, crappy, pile-of-crap Chinese to English translation of my script that it was physically hard to read.  I took an hour redoing it and still it was all this weird boastful propaganda that no English speaker would listen to.  I managed to sound good doing it (of course) but at the end I had to tell them, this is not English.

Who translated it?  I asked.

The lady who hired me stepped up and said, “I did.  Is it bad?”  I said, “It’s translated, but it’s not English. We don’t talk like this.”   And then I took my money and left.  It was late, anyway.

Update:  I have a very clearly articulated statement of philosophy about pancakes posted here.  

6 thoughts on “Having Pancakes

  1. So what exactly does had mean in the sentence ” I had pancakes this morning”. It seems to me that former possession is Indeed the closest meaning and its the noun that provides a clue as to their fate. We don’t expect people to have sex with foodstuffs although American pie has confused things. The odd thing ,to me, Is that a statement of former possession of foodstuffs doesn’t automatically imply their consumption in other languages. Why is tuve panqueques so difficult to understand? If they were stolen or I mislaid them I would say so. Perhaps “had” here is closer in meaning to a personalised había. There was me some pancakes this morning.

    Whilst I would agree completely that expecting one to one word mappings is naive, I would be lost without the ability to look up single words in a dictionary which then lists various options according to context. Anyone foolish enough to automatically use the first option deserves to be laughed at which will hopefully make them try harder in future. People often start out with Inaccurate and unrealistic preconceptions about how languages work, that’s where inspiring and long suffering teachers like your good self come in 🙂


  2. J.P.,
    Your strategically placed pics of luscious pancakes may have distracted others but you can’t force my mentally sharp, laser-like focus away from the fact you never answered the question, no sireee. So…what’s the final answer? does tener mean “to eat” or “to have”?


    • Mik!
      “tener” means “to have, to hold, to own, to possess.”

      “to have” in English can mean several things given the context; one of them is “to eat” (i.e., to have x for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner, for snack).

      If you say “tuve panqueques para el desayuno,” there’s a good chance that Latinos will put two and two together and understand you. However, you’ll never hear them talk that way. My job as a Spanish teacher is to teach people the ways Latinos talk, not the ways they don’t talk! Ok, back to class…


  3. Pingback: Context, Synonym Strategies, Condoms, and Jam | you don't have to read v2.0

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