Translation troubles: buying mailboxes

Prepare for aggressive stationery, a 20th-century scam, and a divisive vegetable name in this week’s peek into our bilingual newsroom

Urban scene nocturne, a red mailbox, in the right of the image, and bus lights passing for behind. Bright light and contrast photo in the public way of Rosario city, Santa Fe province, Argentina. On October 11, 2023.


As with all of today’s translation troubles, this one came up in newsroom conversation. The word carpeta means folder and gave rise to a lunfardo verb carpetear, meaning to spy on someone (kind of like the origins of keeping tabs on people). The idea is that you’re surreptitiously observing a person and squirreling away the information in a folder, waiting for the right moment to reveal it.

Enter our suffix bestie –azo, the linguistic cheerleader we continually use for emphasis here. If you give someone a carpetazo, the image is that you’re smacking them with the big metaphorical folder you have on them: this is used a lot in political contexts, where compromising information about a public official may be leaked at the worst possible moment.

Juan’s suggestion? “I’ve been foldered.” 

Comprar un buzón

Agustín described those who bought tickets to the farcically disappointing Willy Wonka event that went viral as having “bought a mailbox” — compraron un buzón. There are several origin stories for this phrase, which means to be remarkably ripped off, and most come from Buenos Aires in the early 20th century. In his widely-cited 1988 anthology about porteño scams, Alberto Thaler claims that in 1928, con artists would stand by mailboxes and pose as their owners, ostensibly charging people for sending their letters — accomplices who were in on the sting. 

After a few hours, a target would ask how they could get a mailbox of their own and immediately receive the magnanimous offer to buy that same one (often the con artists lamented they had to sell it because they had to visit a sick family member elsewhere). The “mailbox seller” would disappear among the crowds and the new “mailbox owner” left with their ill-advised purchase — presumably getting a rude awakening from the next person dropping off their mail.


This was a wonderfully layered exchange where Juan said someone had stepped into a berenjenal, to which Amy replied what aubergines had to do with anything, only to be met with “What the heck is an aubergine?”

So. A berenjenal is a field of aubergines (for our British friends) or eggplants (for our US friends). As a fun aside, unripe eggplants are white and round and look remarkably egg-like (and there’s also a white variety). But whatever you call it in English, berenjenal in Spanish colloquially means a mess, a muddle, a minefield. For the sake of diplomacy and continued translation fun I won’t be stepping into either figurative vegetable patch, thank you very much.

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