One of the many things I loved about studying history as a teenager was the exoticism, especially the linguistic exoticism. As well as that great cliché’s ringing truth that the past is a foreign country, we also got a double dose of the foreign by learning large chunks of European history. And you couldn’t learn European history without being bombarded by volleys of Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Norse, Dutch, French and many other languages. We had terms like Bolshevik, Lebensraum, laissez-faire, chiaroscuro, Renaissance, Index Librorum Prohibitorum, jarl, noblesse oblige, Magna Carta, latifundia. Mouth-watering words, the clumsy enunciation of which by our unsophisticated tongues physically brought home to us the fascinating otherness of what we were studying — every bit as much as the weird and sometimes disturbing illustrations in the hefty textbooks on the desks in front of us.
There were the place names, the savouring, lingering mention of which by our teachers lifted us from the ordinariness and greyness of our west of Ireland youths and transported us to places like Florence, the cities of the Hanseatic League, Sarajevo, Tordesillas, Oporto, Leningrad, Lepanto, Byzantium. Places with colour. Places beneath the sun. Places unlashed by the wind and unstifled by constant rain and cloud.
And then there were the names. Lucrezia Borgia. John Lackland. Ethelred the Unready. Philippe le Bel. Jean d’Arc. Pope Urbano. Amerigo Vespucci. Vasgo da Gama. Juan Sebastián del Cano. Robespierre. Cardinal Richelieu. Franz Ferdinand. Gavrilo Princip. They just roll off the tongue, take you out of yourself, transport you to other times, but above all other places.
Would you have it any other way if you were studying history? Would you, for example, risk losing all that rich linguistic texture and translate those fabulous foreign words into your own language? Would you take a giant eraser to all those shimmering, exotic names and render them into your own tongue?
Well, you would if you were Spanish!
It’s a facet of Spanish culture that they take foreign words, put them through a mangle from which they emerge Hispanicised, and then proceed to blithely utilise these bastardised and sanitised versions of the real thing. I don’t know whether this practice is as a result of a kind of xenophobia, cultural arrogance, laziness or a function of how poor the general populace’s linguistic skills tend to be, but I’m darn sure of one thing — it’s bloody annoying.
You turn on the news and hear mention of a certain Isabel and her son, Carlos. The queen and crown prince of . . . Hang on they’re talking about Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And they’re travelling from somewhere called Londres to Edimburgo. OMG: they’re talking about London and Edinburgh. I’m not a great fan of Mrs Windsor, nor her tree-hugging wain, but a name is a name. And Prince Charles is a Charles, not a Carlos. Charles is perfect for the man; stuffy, fuddy-duddy, a bit slow, a bit thick. A bit prone to wearing kilts. Carlos implies a Latin vitality, a spark of danger, a touch of the rascal that the Prince of Wales (El Príncipe de Gales, BTW) clearly lacks.
All public and historical figures get the Spanish nominative makeover, as do all the countries and major geographical features of the world. Louis XVI of France becomes Luis XVI de Francia. Not so bad, you might say, but what about poor old Richard the Lionheart? They turned him into Ricardo Corazón de León. Sounds like a cheesy Cuban rumba singer, rather than the crusading saviour (or destroyer, depending on your point of view) of the Holy Land. You might say Martin Luther’s Spanish handle isn’t too bad (Martín Lutero), but what about Julius Ceasar (Julio César) or any of the other poor Roman unfortunates (Nero = Nerón; Marcus Aurelius = Marco Aurelio; Didius Julianus = Didio Juliano). That touch of authority, that patrician, regal air that a Roman name lends one is removed with a flick of a pen. Does Marcus Aurelius not say “upstanding”, “wise”, “fearsome”, “iron-willed”, “learned”, “obdurate” and all those adjectives we associate with an emperor, whereas Marco Aurelio just sounds like Real Madrid’s latest wing back or a minor Floridian reggaetonero and Pitbull wannabe? Julio César would never have conquered Gaul and crossed the Channel with his legions into Britannia; he would have been too busy getting measured for tight pants and practicing his hip rolls.
Really, the Spanish have no excuse for morphing Latin into their own vernacular. After all, Spanish comes from Latin. It wasn’t long ago (well, one-and-a-half millennia) that Latin was what was spoken on the streets and in the fields of Spain — or at least what the pointy-headed linguists call vulgar Latin (although I’m sure most of the people who spoke it were perfectly polite). If a bog-trotting muck savage like me can get his rustic, Irish vocal apparatus around the odd Latin word, why can’t the descendents of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe’s Hispano-Roman character in Gladiator)? One answer, again from the pointy-headed linguists, is the shift in modern Spanish from using –um and -us suffixes to -o suffixes. So Julius become Julio, Maximus becomes Máximo, stadium become estadio and Colosseum becomes Coliseo.
In Spanish, some countries emerge unscathed from the tongue’s nefarious tendency to translate (Australia is Australia, India is La India for example), whereas Myanmar is stuck with Birmania and the Netherlands with Los Países Bajos. Rivers and mountains get the treatment as well. The Thames is El Támesis and the Appalachians are Los Apalaches. Since Spanish doesn’t like words that end on a consonant, many times their changing of a foreign place name involves little more than sticking an A at the end of the word: Irlanda, Dinamarca, Noruega, etc. The nouns that already end on a vowel, especially A, are those that suffer least — the example of Australia from above. If a country or geographical feature contains an adjective such as new or south or united then this is translated. New York is Nueva York. New Zealand is Nueva Zelanda. Newfoundland is Terranova. South Dakota is Dakota del Sur. The United States is Los Estados Unidos. However, obscure places such as West Bromwich or Newmarket-on-Fergus (in my home county) remain untouched — at least until the cartographers catch up on their backlog.
To look on the bright side, things are changing. While the likes of Queen Elizabeth and her counterparts in other European monarchies will always have their names Hispanicised, and those of geographical features are set in stone (so to speak), among a younger generation of Spaniards who are more exposed to the outside world than their parents, there is a greater acceptance of the need to respect foreign names and terms. Modern authors’ first names are never familiarised and nor are those of actors — you’ll never hear George Clooney being called Jorge, for example, in the same way you would have heard Dickens being called Carlos, or Hardy, Tomás. Even what was the norm of altering the names of foreigners you met face to face (calling an Italian Paulo, Pablo, or an English Marie, María) is on the wane. In my parents-in-law’s village a Catalan boy called Ferran who came on a visit was repeatedly referred to as Fernando by the older people, whereas everyone under forty called him by his real name. That’s progress of a sort.
Now, if they could only pronounce my name!