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Derechos, am I right(s)?

Span­ish is a lan­guage I’ve stud­ied on and off through­out my life, but never hard enough, it seems. See­ing a pam­phlet recently, titled Declaración de los dere­chos, made me feel that way. The actual mean­ing (“dec­la­ra­tion of rights”) was easy enough for me to fig­ure out, but I was sur­prised when I real­ized that the Span­ish word for “rights” is dere­chos.

Whether or not you under­stand Span­ish, you may be won­der­ing why I found this so strange.

Well, a word in Span­ish I cer­tainly know is derecha (which means “right”… as in, the direc­tion that isn’t “left”) — it’s one of the first words any­one learns in Span­ish. And despite that word and dere­chos hav­ing dif­fer­ent gen­ders, it can’t be a coin­ci­dence that the two words are almost the same in both Eng­lish and Spanish.

What’s so weird about that? Why shouldn’t these Eng­lish homo­phones be sim­i­lar in Spanish?

I’d explain it like this: I mostly feel this way because of how it works with another pair of Span­ish words — in Eng­lish, the word free has dif­fer­ent mean­ings that each trans­late dif­fer­ently. Most of the time we prob­a­bly think of it in the “cost­ing zero dol­lars” sense… but there’s also the arguably higher-minded def­i­n­i­tion “exist­ing with­out restric­tion.” In Span­ish, they’re two very dif­fer­ent words, the for­mer being gratis and the lat­ter being libre.

In the English-speaking world, I see the dif­fer­ence between the two “frees” most often come up in the Free Soft­ware1 com­mu­nity. When dis­cussing Free Soft­ware phi­los­o­phy, peo­ple will wax elo­quent about the dif­fer­ent mean­ings of free, using phrases like “free as in beer” and “free as in free­dom” to help con­trast the two. They’ll also occa­sion­ally veer into expla­na­tions of Span­ish vocab­u­lary to high­light the dif­fer­ence, point­ing out that gratis and libre are more pre­cise ways to describe two kinds of soft­ware, both of which are “free,” but in sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent senses of the word.

With my mind steeped in this soft­ware salon cul­ture of the back-alley forums of the Inter­net, I became so keenly aware of the extra mean­ing words can pick up when trans­lated into other languages.

And that’s why I find it so hard to believe that, en Español, “rights” are sim­ply dere­chos. The trans­la­tion should be some­thing more abstract… more libre–like. I wouldn’t have guessed that when trans­lated, my rights become “not lefts.”

  1. You may also know this as “Open Source,” although there are folks who will tell you that they’re not the same thing. These folks have beards.

Written by Everett Guerny

January 31st, 2014 at 6:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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2 comments to “Derechos, am I right(s)?”

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  1. Robert Dunn

    31 Jan 14 at 6:56 pm

    gratis” and “libre” are not the only two words in Span­ish that can be trans­lated with the same Eng­lish word, the same applies to wall.…there is “pared”…as in the wall of your house…and “muro”…as in the Berlin wall (i.e. a big­ger structure).

    • Everett Guerny

      31 Jan 14 at 7:04 pm

      Thanks for the heads-up! While I didn’t think that gratis/libre was the only case of dif­fer­ent words for the same word, it was the one exam­ple that imme­di­ately came to mind for me, con­trast­ing so well with derecha/derechos.

      It’s inter­est­ing to learn about that there’s also a dis­tinc­tion between walls and big­ger walls… I totally never learned that one in school.

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