Saturday, September 4, 2010

Can isn't can and other wanderings in Spanish grammar

Every now and then I like to talk about some pressing grammatical or pronunciation issue re: Spanish. Today is one of those days. You can blame the fact that I walked all the way from my house to the Recoleta cemetary (yes, we have a Recoleta cemetary, and may I say, it is a far sight more interesting than the one of the same name in Buenos Aires, photos forthcoming). And during that time, I thought about a conversation I had recently with a friend, in which she said, "El no puede ver a mi primo."

As an English speaker with a passing knowlege (or even perhaps a fairly deep knowlege) of Spanish, you might translate that as "he can't see my cousin." Imagine a situation where the person in question's line of sight is blocked by a pole or other obstruction, and as such, he has no visual line to the cousin, and poof, he can't see him. Demonios!

Now please erase the pole and the obstruction, and one of the aforementioned people. Because what you took to mean "he can't see my cousin" actually means what we would say in English "he can't be in the same room as my cousin" or "he can't stand the sight of my cousin."

Hmmm, the word poder (can, to be able) to mean something having nothing to do with actual ability. Interesting. (And in English we have a variation of that as well, you'll notice that both of the above approximations also use the word can).

Now consider another expression we use all the time, also with can.

I can swim!

The I can/I can't that we easily and mellifluously use in English has no place in Spanish. Well, it's not that it has no place, but it doesn't have the place it has in English.

I can swim (as in, I know how to swim, not as in, how will you get to the other side of the lake, "I can swim (there)", is expressed with saber, for "to know (how)"

Sé nadar.


Puedo nadar.

Here's a case in which we use our version of poder (but not podar, as that means to prune, as in to cut off part of a plant), can, yet in Spanish to use poder means something different, as in the case that someone offers you a lift in their boat to the opposite side of a lake, but you'd really rather hoof (fin?) it, so you tell them you can swim. To tell them that you're able, you'd say not puedo.

So there you have it. More proof that English to Spanish is not a one-to-one relationship, and further evidence (if you needed any) that it's frustrating when someone asks you completely out of context what a single word means. And also that listening to Beyonce does not prevent me from going on grammatical tangents while all the while overhearing whistles and hisses designed to inform me that, in case I was wondering, I'm female.

Happy Saturday!


Margaret said...

Fun! I always love your grammatical ramblings cuz they touch off similar mental puzzles of my own.
OK, so no lo puede ver means she can't stand him... now imagine someone directly translating that into Spanish: no lo puede poner de pie (she can't get him to his feet, as if he were drunk) or no lo puede parar (which could also mean she can't get him to stop)...
(But I'll stop now!)

Isabel said...

oh, I love this grammar stuff! I see another problem with this translation in my students' essays. They will often use "can" superfluously and throughout their essays (this may speak more of their writing skills and not the language, but I also have to eliminate a lot of "poder" in translations.

lydia said...

thinking of your original example, "el no puede ver a mi primo" / "he can't see my cousin" I would probably interpret it as in he's prohibited from doing it, or should'nt or it makes him feel bad or something, rather than the line of sight interpretation. (as i "cant" see an ex boyfriend anymore) in this way, it seems a little closer to the intended meaning or translation you talk about.

Eileen said...

hmm, interesting. Can't as in prohibited from, which is the same as in English. But I'm not sure I'd use it that way in Spanish. Though I guess maybe I should!

Gonzalo said...

I think the meaning of "El no puede ver a mi primo" might be any of these, depending on the context:
1. he can't stand him.
2. he's not allowed to see him.
3. there's something preventing or blocking his sight.
4. he's blind.
When the context is not clear, the most obvious meaning is number 1, but still you could make a joke (though not a very good one) of the ambiguity of the phrase, saying for example, "Dile que encienda la luz" or "Dile que abra los ojos".

Eileen said...

Hey Gonzalo, thanks for chiming in. I don't think I've seen you around here before, and nice breakdown of the four meanings. That joke reminds me of one I accidentally laid the groundwork for recently involving two people exchanging cellphone (numbers). I'm sure you know the one.

Are you somewhere we can check you out? Chilean? US-ian? both? neither. Curious!

Gonzalo said...

Hey Eileen, thank you for your marvelous blog and photos (I event felt the smell on seeing some of them, not kidding).
I'm a Santiaguino just discovering the world of blogs. So far so good!

Lala said...

You'll find more and more of these examples. I must say that english also uses many words that, placed differently, will have another meaning...when you come to know these meanings is when you notice that you've learned plenty of a language.
Cheers from Buenos Aires =)