This is how it usually goes down:
student A: How do you say “get”?
me: Give me some context.
student A: There’s no context. Just “get”. Like “get.”
me: That’s a trap. There are seven pages of “get” in the dictionary.
student B: (whispering) obtener (to obtain).
me: Don’t you use that word…
student A: YO… OBTENIENDO… CANSADO. (me… obtaining… tired)
student A: Why are you mean?
The deal is this: there are seven hundred entries of get in WordReference. Obtener is one of them. One of seven hundred. There are seven hundred options. Chances are, you want one of the other six hundred ninety nine. I can help you narrow it down, if you give me a little context. If student A had only said “to get tired,” I would have told him “cansarse” and everyone would high five and feel like a winner.
I’ve blogged about this before; this unwillingness for people to give a little context. Asking someone for the first gloss that comes to mind–without providing any context–is an express train to Janky Translation City. The same holds for using a dictionary; just taking the first word that appears in the dictionary entry without reading all the options is some junk; don’t do it.
I tell my students that when you need a word, and you don’t have resources like a dictionary or someone you can ask, you should try a lateral strategy, maybe a word that you can use will come to you. For example, if you forget the word for “short” in a given language, you don’t have to bust your behind to find that exact word… a synonym might work; “small” is a more basic word that you probably know. It’s not the exact you want, but it’s close enough. Or you could try an antonym; if could say “not tall,” and chances are that the person you’re talking to will give you the word for “short” after that. In the industry, we call that “circumlocution,” and to me it’s a more important skill than, say, memorizing.
Of course, when I explain this stuff to my students, they love to try to prove to me how it’s impossible. Some of them are constantly looking for reasons to give up. “Ok,” they said once, “how do you say Random! in French?
When they say it, it’s a high note and sung to the tune of the door bell. They say Random!, and then everybody laughs. What they want to know is something they can yell when one of their friends says something stupid, something that will make everyone else laugh at them. It goes like this.
student a: Oh my God, I’m so watching this movie…
student b: Last night I dreamt about puppies.
student a: Um… Random!
everyone within earshot: hahaha, that was so random!
So when they asked me to say “Random!” in French, it took me a while to process. I scoured my brain for a dictionary gloss; then tried to find a synonym. Then I thought, why am I doing all the heavy lifting here? They should be trying to find the synonym, at least!
The “random” they’re looking for is not in the dictionary. The one they want doesn’t mean “an arbitrary selection left to chance.” I ask them to tell me some context. Or a synonym. Or to explain it with more words.
” No,” they say, “just random… like… Random!”
Of course, there are several ways to say “random,” in French; here’s the dictionary entry; but you’ll notice that none of them are really meant as a way to ridicule others. The short answer is: French people don’t do that to each other; they don’t consider that funny or polite or… acceptable.
The analogous question I often get in Spanish class is how to say, “Awkward!” sung to the same ding-dong doorbell tune as “Random!” My student loooove to yell “Awkward!” at each other. How can we do that in Spanish? The short answer is: Latino’s don’t do that to each other. Latinos don’t have the same custom of delighting in a faux pas the same way we do.
A friend of mine told the story of a big Sunday family lunch at her homestay in Spain. She wanted someone to pass the jam so she could spread it on her toast. She didn’t know the word for “jam” so she settled on a perfectly decent synonym “preservatives,” and then tropicalized it. But when she asked them to pass the “preservativos” the table hushed and they looked at her in horror as if her nose had fallen off. She wasn’t sure what had gone wrong, so she indicated the jar of jam on the table and said “¿preservativos?” They smiled at her kindly and someone gently told her the word was “la mermelada.” The word “preservativos,” in contrast, means “condoms.”
That’s where she should have stopped.
Of course, she didn’t stop. Instead, she did some awkward American flailing, trying to get her host family to see the humor in the situation. She explained her logic, and tired to get at least a chuckle out of someone for her innocent and unintentionally bawdy vocabulary mistake.
Of course, the host family did not join her in delighting in the awkwardness of the situation. They don’t have that in their culture; that’s our culture. They were left with little to do but stare at her, and wonder why she was still saying the word “condoms” while some people were trying to eat.
This post started off about the importance of providing context, and then transitioned to the Synonym Strategy, and then ended with a culture clash story in which the Synonym Strategy failed.
Post script: the words for “Jam” and “condom” were forever etched in my friend’s memory that day; it was an extremely effective way to instantly own that vocabulary, without ever having to study. There’s your happy ending! Context is everything.