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.

2 thoughts on “Derechos, am I right(s)?”

  1. “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).

    1. 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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