On returning from a trip this week, one of my favorite parts of getting back into the office was trawling through our translation channel on Slack. Here are three standout quandaries that came up while I was away.
Huevo de serpiente
Last week, Télam cited the Brazilian Supreme Court describing President Lula da Silva’s 2018 imprisonment as the huevo de serpiente for later attacks on democracy and institutions. In Juan’s words, a “serpent’s egg” is “something that is maybe small or harmless but will result in something evil/devastating.” Our translator and cultural journalist Agustín pointed out that there’s an Ingmar Bergman film called “The Serpent’s Egg” set in 1920s Germany where the potential evil is a nascent Nazism.
The team went with “original sin” but that doesn’t convey the plot twist. Although not in common parlance, the earliest use of the phrase is in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — so it’s actually a translation from English. The course of language never did run smooth.
This one was waiting in my inbox and came from Martina: although the term wasn’t used in the final article, it’s worth getting into.
On September 4 Victoria Villarruel, vice presidential candidate of Javier Milei’s La Libertad Avanza (LLA), led an event in the Buenos Aires City legislature denying the state-sponsored terrorism carried out by the last military dictatorship. On X (formerly Twitter), Villaruel accused those who condemned the move of “trying to intimidate us with escraches like in the 1970s.”
Given that the event was an exercise in denialism, Villaruel’s use of the word is particularly galling because the escrache is a form of collective action pioneered in the 1990s by HIJOS — the movement that groups children of desaparecidos, people who were kidnapped during the dictatorship.
The group first raised the alarm on Dr. José Luis Magnacco, nicknamed “the ESMA midwife,” who was the head of gynecology at the Mitre Sanatorium. They led a protest from the clinic, marking the building with spray paint and calling for his resignation, to Magnacco’s home nearby. At the time, the Punto Final and Obediencia Debida laws had halted dictatorship trials — escraches were a targeted form of social condemnation that gained traction in the media, popularizing the term. According to HIJOS, 50 were carried out between 1997 and 2008, with other countries implementing similar tactics of singling out repressors and warning neighborhoods of their presence.
You may also be interested in: Pontifical Provocations, Dictatorship Defense
Now a general term to reveal and publicize someone’s dirty laundry as a form of protest — not specific to HIJOS — the verb escrachar comes from lunfardo. It originally meant both to hit someone in the face and take their portrait: apt, then, that we still sometimes use it to describe unflattering photos we’d like our friends to untag us from, thanks.
This is arguably the positive version of an escrache. The sum of flag (bandera) and the versatile suffix –azo, this basically refers to large gatherings of football fans — banners and flags unfurled — congregating at a stadium or public place to show support for their team.
As mentioned in a previous translation trouble article, -azo is a cheerleader, used to play up the size, force, or importance of something. There’s also an Argentine tradition of naming social uprisings by tacking it onto the end of relevant placenames: the 1969 Cordobazo is the prime example. So we’re not just talking about the size or quality of the team flag but the number of people rallying around it.
In this case, our sports guy Fernando was writing about the controversy surrounding Bolivians apparently supporting Lionel Messi and the Argentine men’s national team more than their own side. So maybe not the opposite of an escrache this time.