Lost in Translation


When I arrived at Mom’s, I mentioned that I had a project for her to do. I wished to

have her mind challenged, trying her ‘hand’ once again at translating. I borrowed an

adorable book from my grandson, Micah, called:  “Bear Says Thanks.” This has been

already translated into Spanish on the bottom of each page. I was hoping Mom would

enjoy this little idea and tell me a little bit about how things that rhyme in English,

as this is written with a nice cadence and lovely blending of words, turn out when put

into another language.

(If you are just dropping by, my Mom taught World Literature and Spanish to high

school students for 30 years.)


The Spanish title of this book is easily translated with no changes in meaning:

“Oso Dice Gracias.” If you would like to find this book, written by Karma Wilson and

illustrated with charming animals who gather for a feast. Perfect Thanksgiving book,

with the meaning of gratitude and friendship themes easily understood by a 3-4 year

old. The illustrator, Jane Chapman, captures sweet expressions on the various creatures

of the woods, along with the playful sense of humor.

I had taken white 3 x 5″ cards and carefully covered the given Spanish translation, using

yellow Sticky Tack to keep the cards over the words, without ruining my grandson’s book.


Mom decided to give me a short tutorial in translation, reminding me of several rules

of language since I had had about 6 years of Spanish, along with one year of French. I

was not too bad while teaching a non-English speaking student while fresh out of

college, in my sixth grade class. I was always much better listening and comprehending,

as in my travels to Mexico and Spain. I also was fairly adept at reading Spanish, just have

a hard time speaking in complex sentences. She reminded me that there are sometimes

words that may change according to the ‘sex’ of the person. Her example of this was:

“vieja” would mean an older woman and “viejo” would mean an older man. When you

learn beginning Spanish, I remembered “amiga’ was my girlfriend, while my guy friends

were “amigos.”

Mom said this book in English has “beautiful flow of words,” which is difficult to capture

when translating it.

Here is an example of the English words that Mom found challenging.

“I’m back from a stroll

from the old fishing hole

(and it later rhymes again with ‘pole.’)

The words ‘fishing hole’ are already complicated becoming: “pescaria.” This is an all-

encompassing word for all things that are fishing related.


Here are the list of animals in the story:

(Mom was easily able to translate all but the Raven, Wren and Gopher.)

Badger  =  Tejon (It needs an accent on the “o” Mom told me.)

Wren  =  Chochin (It needs an accent on the “I” Mom mentioned.)

Owl  =  Buho  (The “u” needs an accent to emphasize the first syllable, Mom said.)

Mouse = Raton (The “o” gets an accent.)

Gopher = Taltuza

Hare = Liebre

Raven = Cuervo (I thought this was part of an alcoholic beverage. Smile!)


**Mole  =  Topo

This was very confusing to us both.

We peeked at this name, which both Mom and I made a comment about “Topo Gigio,”

a puppet. I had forgotten this little character in both Spanish and Italian plays until I

heard the word, “Topo” which I immediately blurted out, “Gigio.” Mom sagely nodded

her head, when I said the last part. She told me this was ‘puzzling.’  We both thought

that  “Topo Gigio” was a mouse! Why in this book is the word for mole, “topo” while

the word for mouse sounds like it is a rat, “raton”?)**



Mom did not easily translate the following phrase, so I let her ‘cheat’ and ‘peek.’

In English, “smiles real wide.”

In Spanish, “y de oreja a oreja sonrie.” This means a smile that is ‘cheek to cheek.’)


The friendly tone and playful words of:

“There’s a flap and a flutter

and a flurry in the den,

when in flutters Owl, Raven and Wren.”

(Karma’s lovely flowing words.)

Mom read and re-read those words, she was uncertain how to translate the “f” words.

Mom refrained from saying her own “f” word!

In this case of the different animals arriving there are several different words used to

describe the motions.  Even in English there are a lot of words you may use for one word.


“You need to be careful,” Mom told me, “when you are choosing a word with a distinct

meaning. We want to carry out the flavor, intent and feeling of the author’s writing. You

would not wish to offend anyone, either, while translating words from one language to


This children’s book, “Bear Says Thanks/ Oso Dice Gracias” was overwhelming for Mom,

to change into Spanish. We still don’t feel we did as well as the examples given on each page.

“We didn’t do this simple, but meaningful book justice,” Mom exclaimed.


The last page where all the animals gather has a considerate Bear apologizing because

he doesn’t have any food to bring to the feast. The different animals have gathered to

commune together and break bread.  All of them tell Bear, ‘his gift’ is to tell them stories.

This is what makes him special.  There’s no need to bring anything to eat, since each one

has brought more than enough to share.

What a beautiful lesson given with charming pictures which could be a book your

family will treasure.


Mom said that the way a person may choose a tense or a synonym may be the same

as people writing a paper in English. We may choose ‘lovely’ and another may choose

the word, ‘beautiful.’ We may use the word, ‘sparkly’ while another may use ‘shiny.’

She made a funny comment that I had to immediately write down so I would not forget.

She even used a little ‘saucy tone,’

“Different strokes for different folks.”

Mom went on to emphasize the meaning behind the words we choose depends not only

on the context of the sentence, but also upon the tone used.  Here is another “Momism:”

“Our different experiences color our reactions to things. We need to use reverence and

respect towards the culture of the country whose language you are translating from or

into. This is important whenever we try to translate someone else’s writing.”


22 responses »

  1. This is a wonderful illustration about how going back to her teaching days brought the best of your mom’s mental powers into focus, Robin. How wonderful of you to realize how to bring her back to the subjects that allow her a bridge to this glory, and for you to sit beside her and witness her satisfaction in sharing these thoughts with her daughter. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Mark! I was truly afraid people would not think this was a valid experiment. It was quite challenging but I did feel it was meaningful. You are really sweet with your generous comments, on a subject that is pretty ‘finite’ and limited in its appeal! Smiles and have a wonderful weekend, Mark! I am off to visit your posts for a bit, but will truly explore many others on Saturday my first in a few weeks…

  3. What a wonderful idea. I am going to try this with my mother-in-law who has early stage dementia. She was an expert cook and if I can get her to describe those old recipes, she might be a bit more interactive. Lately she just sits and stares, far too much. Thank you for this lovely post, Robin.

    • Oh, Beth! I am so glad you could relate to this post and hope this will help you and your mother in law. I found it really helped my Mom and me, to become closer. I also felt she was not doing well, trying to do crossword puzzles, found her almost near tears in frustration. Words and those boxes are almost cruel for those losing a few of their ‘marbles’ which is our family’s private joke about Mom. It keeps us smiling and happy, patient and kind. Take care and let me know how the cooking with recipes and sharing this time with your M-I-L goes!

  4. This was such a great idea, Robin. It’s obvious you have a great deal of patience…I’m working on that these days.
    Oh Spanish…I still have nightmares from my college years. It’s amazing how one instructor’s words can cause you to lose all confidence.

    • I am so saddened by that instructor’s unkind and thoughtless words. Teachers are meant to be encouraging and helpful. Not sure if I had anyone be this rude in my college days, but had only one in my high school who tried to ‘crush’ my spirit, Jill!
      Hey, last night I saw a movie on Hallmark with some fine country singers in it, called “Angels Sing.” Have you ever seen this one? I didn’t have a t.v. guide, so not sure what age it was, but Harry Connick, Jr. Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Kris Kristofferson were in it, along with a woman who is on the t.v. series, “Nashville, Connie Britton. It was a Christmas movie, corny and sweet. I would recommend it, just to see the way the people come into the couple played by Connie and Harry’s family life, (who don’t wish to decorate and join in the neighborhood Christmas fun!) Again, thought of you, while I was sitting on my love seat. I had had a nice meal at Red Lobster with my good old friend, Bill.
      Enjoy your weekend, brr! It is only 40 degrees out this am and the library is not very warm!

  5. I can relate to the challenges of translating from English to Spanish and vice versa. Florence and I wrote a children’s book based on our experience in Nicaragua, “The Geese of Selva Negra”, and we put both the English and the Spanish eBook versions for sale on Amazon for 99 cents. (I will send you a copy if you are interested.)

    There are more differences than similarities between the two languages, and things that are, indeed, lost in translation. For example, when we learned about the life and the poetry of the late Nobel Laureate, Pablo Neruda (from our visit to his home in Chile), I checked out some of his poetry online and at the library. In Spanish, Neruda’s writing is lyrical and captivating. In English, it loses its magic even though the words are clear and understandable.

    A funny example of the differences in language was when we listened to TV shows in English, and I would follow the dialogue in the Spanish subtitles. Things didn’t always translate well. When one character said, ‘Liar, Liar – pants on fire’, the subtitle read, ‘Just like Pinocchio.’ Another time a character stated, ‘It’s all Greek to me.’ and the subtitle read, ‘It’s all Chinese to me,’ because in Spanish, ‘Todo es griego a mi’ would not make sense. That is funny when you know that most of the convenience stores in Spain and Latin America are owned and run by Chinese. They are referred to as a Chino store, or just El Chino, which is not a derogatory term.

    I love that you found a way to challenge one another through language, especially since you and your mother are multilingual. We made many new friends in our travels just by attempting to speak to them in their native language. I wish I had known the value of learning a language while I was in school. I would have studied harder. In fact, I wish I could have had your mother for a teacher! 🙂 – Mike

    • I am so thankful for this comprehensive response to my essay, Mike! I am laughing at the way your troubles went with translating and also smiling since I have the good fortune of reading several of Pablo Neruda’s poems. I had a lot of fun trying to get up while reciting Spanish poems all four years of high school at Kent State U. (Ohio) where they held high school declamation contests. My favorite poem I remember was about a fig tree, “La Higuera.” I came in 2nd and 3rd and Honorable Mention, but never quite did well the first year. I had to learn the cadence and pronunciation fully for this contest each year!
      I am not one who would probably use an ebook, I also remember telling you if you ever need an illustrator in the future, when I commented on the post about the book, let me know… Smiles, Robin

    • Oh, Mike, never regret how you chose your past not choosing to study languages. . . since you have definitely come around the world and back, as an adult!
      I wanted to let you know the poem about a Bird/Pajaro was Pablo Nerudo’s when I chose to recite it, and the poem about the Fig Tree, was written by a Brazilian, Juan de Ibarbourou. I went back to find this in my post, “Spanish Toast.” Thanks for reading and leaving me such a wonderful message!

  6. This post says so much about you as a human being and a daughter Robin! I would wish my daughters would be so able and patient when my marbles start falling out! Putting your mom into a situation she knows really well and working and learning alongside her is such an empowering experience. She is blessed! She is also very wise and I found myself nodding my head in agreement with everything she had to say. This post could well inspire us all to find some way of re-finding the person within for our older relatives and friends.

    • I appreciate this comment, with a little bit teary-eyed face (I really liked how you mentioned the part about “re-finding the person within our older relatives and friends, Pauline!) I loved the old poster I had in high school with Desiderata poem on it. I have written about its beautiful words and have sometimes remembered them, once in a while ‘too late.’ I have had a few elderly friends in my life, due to meeting them through jobs and all, I am always surprised when they share a fascinating story and I ask them, “Have you told this to your daughter/son/family?” There have been at least three who said, “Oh, they don’t have time to listen to this old story!” Oh my! I agree, I hope my own children will find something to bring out in my older years, if I am blessed to live a long life! Smiles and hugs for this sincerely wonderful words of wisdom and compliments today, Pauline!

  7. I concur with all of the above comments Robin. Such a great idea and like Beth, my mumma penguin loves her recipies so I may try what she is doing also. Very informative post and bless your darling mum, I loved the momism, what an intelligent woman she is. Hugs to both of you. xx

    • Thanks, Jen, so very much! I am not at all bragging, nor trying to make a ‘big deal’ with these stories about my Mom, as you are not ever making fun of your penguins. We are demonstrating our love for them, possibly motivating others to try some more, to get deeper and closer to their loved ones. . . before it is too late.
      I had dinner with my good, old male friend, Bill last night and when I was telling him a bit about my Mom, he stopped me in my tracks. He said something touching and a little painful about himself~ “I never liked going to visit my Mom, because I didn’t like to see how little was left of the mother I knew…” I felt so bad, since this is exactly how I would never wish to be full of regret! Hugs to you, Jen, for keeping connected and I enjoy your stories so much about your penguins, dear mum and pop. xo

  8. This was beautiful to read, not only for the ‘momism’, with which I concur, but also for the bonding that I sensed in your words. To me, It feels as though it was very special for both of you.

  9. Thanks for this. My daughter is currently travelling around South America and learned some Spanish before she went. I have sent her a couple of phrases from above and I will see if she understands them 🙂
    I liked the one able the smile from cheek to cheek.

  10. i think this experience was such a sweet gift to your mom. and while, she didn’t feel she did it justice, she knows all that you went through to set this up for her, and it gave her a chance to think about spanish, something she probably hasn’t thought about in a while. the end of the story, with the bear who was worried he didn’t have anything to offer to the rest, is a good comparison with your mom’s worries about her translation abilities. nice the others pointed out they had plenty to share, just like you do, with your mom.

  11. This was such a heartwarming post. My dad had Parkinson’s Disease, and later developed dementia. The dementia was more predominant when we were getting used to the idea of having to move our kids across the country. My mom kept telling us he was having hallucinations due to the Parkinson’s medication. I was all caught up in the stress of making sure my family would adjust so I didn’t fully recognize all that was happening. Six months after we moved, I went back for a visit. I can remember my dad telling me that he knew what he was seeing wasn’t real, but it seemed so real to him. That’s when I realized he wasn’t having hallucinations, he had dementia. I have some guilt that I’m trying to let go of, many I have forgiven myself, because we lived so far away.

    Other visits to my mom and dad’s, I could see his progression. To the point I don’t believe he knew who I was, but we don’t really know if they know, or simply can’t communicate. The last time I saw him, I knew would be the last. He had the same personality, but simply couldn’t take care of himself any longer. My mom couldn’t either. She held a lot of resentment toward him.She thought all his actions were controllable.

    One thing I am grateful for, is that my brother would sit with him and go through Naval history books with a lot of photos. He revealed stories that made him cry. Stories he never shared with us. I am so thankful that my brother could do this with him. He died just three months before my dad.

    Okay, I’m getting a bit teary-eyed. Even though I couldn’t be there for him, my sister and brother were. To this day, my mom still doesn’t understand dementia, and denies that my dad had it.

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