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.”