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Never mind English, worry about Spanish
by Newropeans-Magazine
2011-10-13 07:40:38
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Foreigners arriving in or dealing with Chile, even those whose mother tongue is Spanish, soon realise that they have a problem understanding what they hear or read. It is not just the pronunciation or the strange words, but the utterance of amazing things with a straight face, particularly by officials and fashionable commentators, or the incorrect usage of terms in Spanish that they thought meant something else.


One is already used to high officials or business leaders denying they have done anything wrong, never mind that there is plenty of clear evidence to the contrary. One example is why I stopped watching the CHV channel’s Tolerancia Cero debate programme on Sunday nights, of which I previously used to be an unconditional fan. The panel of journalists listened passively as the crooked Spaniard Jorge Segovia, who controls the SEK educational group, and wanted to lead Chiles’ professional football association, claimed he had no knowledge of my denouncing years ago the fact that his Viña school had falsified a public document, namely the year-end school certificate which each school issues in the name of the Education Ministry. Such an act is a criminal offence in Chile, punishable by a jail sentence. Because my son was among the dozens of pupils involved, I reported the SEK to the ministry which investigated, found the accusation legitimate, fined the school and took the matter to a criminal court, where it probably got buried in the system which allows a procurator to become in charge of the child protection gaency after protecting a paedophile for years. The Tolerancia Cero panel had all the documents of the ministry confirming the above, but they let Segovia transform the episode into a dispute between me and him, adding that “if I had any complaint I hsould have gone to court”, whereas he had been found guilty by the state of falsification of an official document, and fined by the state of Chile. Not one of the panel, which had received all the information in advance, stood up to this outrage. Of course my complaints, sent whilst the programme was still on, or afterwards or for the following week, disappeared without trace.

Last week, on launching another timid anti-smoking campaign, a habit which probably kills more people than any other cause, Health minister Mañalich was wringing his hands (it seems to be common among this Cabinet). He admitted that TV spots were the most effective tool to get the message across, but sadly “it was very expensive and they did not have any funds”. Really?. Only U$ 5 bn plus in fiscal surplus for the first semester, plus three times that saved in the bank. Not one journalist or analyst picked the point up. In fact, considering the potential savings in health care, it probably would have been a zero sum exercise.

Private commentators, the so-called “expertos” much loved by the Chilean media, do not remain behind in public silliness. Two recent examples are the interview of the senior partner in the ECONSULT think tank, Jose Ramon Valente (Opus Dei, Chicago Boy, and what have you). He was explaining why the price of petrol at the pumps was going up by 15 pesos a litre, as the dollar had gone up by 10 pesos. “It is unavoidable”, he vocifered.

Nobody thought of asking him why petrol is now much more expensive than when the dollar was over 600 and the barrel of oil cost U$ 140. Anyway, the following week, the dollar went up another 15 pesos, but the price of petrol fell 15 pesos. I did not see any interview of Mr Valente explaining this conundrum.

David Gallagher is a former Oxford academic and British banker, settled in Chile for a long time, and probably the only resident foreigner allowed to have a public profile because he preaches the national creed of the free market and neoliberalism (“gente como uno). So Mr Gallagher recently came up with a gem in a column of the afternoon paper, La Segunda. He said “the only thing the opposition wants is for this government to fail”. Really? First of all, oppositions are not designed to ensure that the incumbents are easily re-elected, and in any case the Piñera administration has a unique knack of shooting itself in the foot without any outside interference.

However, the top prize for irrelevant Chutzpah goes to the highest official of the land, president Piñera himself. Last week at the UN General Assembly, he described the student protest movement, now 4 months old, as “noble”. As he said that, his Interior minister “Shlomo”, now in charge of the police forces, and also using a parallel secret service disguised as a “research department” (“ a bunch of ignorant thugs”, as one insider described them to me) , were clobbering and even shooting protesters right, left and centre, whereas the mayor of the Santiago district of Providencia, Cristian Labbé, a former Pinochet henchman in the notorious DINA, was illegally expelling thousands of pupils from the municipal school system. Labbé was also recently a guest of “Tolerancia Cero”, I am told, which just about describes the sort of people whose views and behaviour the programme currently wishes to promote.


The mis-use of language is another problem when trying to fathom the mind and thoughts of people. A good recent example is the constant media reference to the fall of the Air Force’s transport plane near Robinson Crusoe island. They kept referring to it as “capotó”. Now I can only repeat than in its original French as in the official Spanish usage, “capoter” does not mean to fall, it means to turn over, whether a land or air vehicle, something which happens on land, not in the sky.

If only it were the only example. For years I tried and failed to explain to Chilean editors that the word “socialité” did not exist in any language, but I failed. Similarly, to end with the example of foreign-origin words, “colación”, another French word in origin, is supposed to be a snack, not a full meal, but in Chile lunch breaks, whether a sandwich or a three course meal are all referred-to as “colación”.

Well, any more luck with Spanish expressions? I am afraid not. Let us start with “triunfo”. It does not mean just scoring more points than an adversary and therefore a simple win. That is a victory, not a triumph. The latter is an overhwlming rout of the other side. Taking a common soccer example, a 2-1 win is a victory, but 7 -1 is a triumph. Not in Chile, where all victories are “triunfos”, dixit the sports journalists almost to a man (and some women who like handling balls).

Returning to meals, the word “servirse” referring to eating should only apply to a buffet or self-service restaurant, but you often see signs outside eateries saying “para llevar o servirse”, even if it means waiter service at the table, which should never be “servirse”. The waiter or waitress who comes to your table and asks “qué se van a servir”?, is only allowed to do so if she is going to point you to a self-service buffet. Otherwise she is in the wrong.

The weather is a good source of confusion too. Do you know what Chilean weather forecasters mean by “cielo parcial” ? They mean a partly cloudy sky, but the correct expression is “nubosidad parcial”, because it is the clouds that are scattered, not the sky. Similarly, any bad weather is referred to as a “frente”, which should normally be reserved for storms, particulay heavy ones.

In all the world, “dividendo” or “dividend” just means the share of earnings distributed to members of a limited company. Not in Chile, where the word confusingly refers to payments of a loan or instalments on a credit purchase.

Finally, a horror movie. There are a lot of zombies in Chile. How do I know? Because people keep referring to others as “amaneció muerto”, which literally means “he woke up dead”. For most people, being dead is a sure way of never waking up, except if you are a zombie. What they mean of course is that the person died in his or her sleep, but the expression is very ridiculous. Some ideas to include in the education reforms that everyne talks about.



Armen Kouyoumdjian
Country Risk Strategist
Valparaiso, Chile

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