The bottle of 12-year-old single-malt Scotch hit the floor and shattered,
showering the bar with precious whiskey and shards of glass. The Mexican busboy
looked up at his boss and said, "Se rompió" ("It
"It didn't break!" the bartender yelled. "You dropped
it!" The busboy said nothing. "What do you have to say for
yourself?" the bartender prompted.
The busboy shrugged. "Así lo quiere Dios." ("That's
the way God wants it.")
The bartender sighed and ordered him to clean up the mess. Then, to his bar
customers, he launched into to a tirade about the supposed superiority of
English over Spanish.
"Did you hear what he said?" the bartender demanded. " 'It
broke.' Not 'I broke it,' or even 'It slipped out of my hands.' Just, 'It
broke.' Spanish encourages you to evade responsibility that way. That reflexive
pronoun 'se' -- it puts the blame back on the subject. 'It broke itself.'
Nobody did it. Nobody's responsible. Things just happen. I don't even have to
apologize. Not my fault."
That bartender knew just enough Spanish to translate the busboy's words.
Unfortunately, he didn't understand the full context of what was being said. He
made a literal translation while retaining his English-speaking mind-set, and
drew inappropriate conclusions.
One culture-specific characteristic at work here concerns causality. The
bartender, like most native English-speakers, feels that blame should be
assigned when something goes wrong. But relatively few cultures do this.
Ascribing responsibility for events to God is not unique to Spanish. For
example, in colloquial Arabic, one of the most commonly heard phrases is
"inshallah," meaning "Allah willing." Other cultures
ascribe responsibility to fate or destiny, such as Cantonese Chinese
("Joss") or Turkish ("Kismet").
In such cultures it is not always necessary to assign blame. If the busboy
dropped the bottle, perhaps God wanted the bottle to be dropped. Life is
infinitely complex and beyond our understanding. Maybe the liquor was tainted.
Maybe breaking a bottle will, in the long run, lead to something good. This
doesn't mean that a fumble-fingered employee would be tolerated in these
cultures. It just means that blame is not automatically assigned.
We used to ascribe some actions to the will of God in English. But perhaps
because you can't sue God we've gotten out of the habit. (When was the last
time you heard an English-speaking executive use the words "God
willing" about a business matter?)
Another cross-cultural observation about the interchange between the busboy
and the bartender concerns apologies. The bartender clearly wanted an apology.
In some cultures, such as English and Japanese, apologies are relatively
common. But in most cultures, including Spanish, apologies occur less often.
Learning to go beyond literal translations can be difficult. Hispanic
advertising executive Lionel Sosa has examined such translations in his new
book, The Americano Dream (1998, E.P. Dutton). Here are his
interpretations of some Spanish phrases and how they are heard by both Latinos
- "Para servirle," a common expression by service personnel, such
as waiters. Literal translation: Here to serve you. Meaning to Latino: My
pleasure. Implication to Anglo: Wow! My valet!
- "De nada," a common response to "thank you." Literal
translation: It's nothing. Meaning to Latino: You're welcome. Implication to
Anglo: He/she must believe what I'm saying "thanks" for has little
- Mándeme," a response after name is called. Literal translation:
Command me. Meaning to Latino: Yes? Implication to Anglo: He/she must want me
to tell him/her what to do.
Globalization brings speakers of different languages in closer contact than
ever before. But as we try to communicate across linguistic barriers, we need
to remember that the literal translation is not necessarily the correct one.
Reprinted from IndustryWeek, May 26, 1998