Monday, November 15, 2010

Prissy Textbook Authors

Authors of language textbooks (especially, those aimed at advanced-level students) realize that it is necessary to include cultural content in a textbook to make it useful. However, they are often prevented by their annoying prissiness from addressing said content in a direct and honest way. To give an example, today in my Advanced Spanish Conversation class we read a text by a Mexican author where words "pendejo" and "huevona" were used. The prissy authors of the textbook translated the word "pendejo" as "dumb" and the word "huevona" as "lazy." This, of course, made my Mexican students laugh hysterically.

The words in question can, on certain occasionas, be used in the sense suggested by the book's authors. However, the set of implications they carry is very offensive, especially in Mexico where bandying around "pendejos" and "huevones" at every opportunity might get you into serious trouble. I mentioned that to my students and warned them to be very careful with this vocabulary. I didn't go into details of what these words actually mean, but I will do so for the benefit of my blog readers. Be forewarned, though, that the etymology of these words, just like many words in the Spanish vocabulary, is not for the faint of heart.

Pendejo - the original meaning of this word is "a particle of dirt that hangs from one's pubic hair." That particle of dirt is obviously neither good nor useful, so referring with this word to a person is quite offensive.

Huevón - originally referred to bulls who were not castrated and, therefore, still had balls (one of the meanings of "huevos" is testicles.) These bulls were used for breeding instead of hard work. This is why the word is often used to refer to a lazy person.

I do wish authors of language textbooks had enough courage to avoid bowdlerizing an entire language simply because it hurts their sensibilities to accept cultural and linguistic variations.


Anonymous said...

The text and textbook is aimed at ostensible adults who can go to R-rated movies and/or vote. Right?

It's not like the textbook is aimed at small children.

I think the etymology of insults provides a fascinating look into culture.

Clarissa said...

Of course, this textbook is aimed specifically at college-level students. I would at least somewhat understand it if the authors removed the words they can't deal with altogether. But offering misguided translations is even worse.

Anonymous said...

I think this is particularly problematic because many second language learners (in my experience at least), even at advanced levels, and even when they know the explicit meanings, do not develop a feel for how bad these types of words are (I don't mean your examples explicitly, as I don't know Spanish). Learners like to learn bad words, but they rarely feel the same sort of shock/badness they would speaking or hearing similar words in their dominant language. I'm not saying these words shouldn't be taught, just that it's yet another reason to do it better than the book you describe.

Clarissa said...

"Learners like to learn bad words, but they rarely feel the same sort of shock/badness they would speaking or hearing similar words in their dominant language"

-That is SO true! I say on a regular basis the kinds of words in my Argentinean Spanish that in Russian I would have to be extremely angry even to think. :-) :-)

Robin said...

It's always interesting to me when censors allow words in Spanish that they would never allow in English on though they mean something less vulgar,just because they're in another language?

Good job teaching your students a linguistic reality. They certainly would not do well throwing around said words in every day conversation.

DM said...

I have a faint remembrance of a young petite latin teacher in highschool making us work on the Golden Ass... including a number of quite risqué suggestions (am I making things up, or is there a part where an adulterer who murdered her husband is to be chastised by being made to have sex with a donkey?).