Translation troubles: conscripted pearls

What stumped the newsroom as we covered Argentina’s 2023 general election and its aftermath

October 22 was quite the electoral Sunday and while there were surprisingly few translation troubles on the night, there were a couple that came up in its dramatic aftermath. Let’s take a gander through big surprises, military services, dinner-lunches, and pearls together. 


After gaining three million more votes than in the primaries, the term batacazo was on the lips of many when talking about Unión por la Patria (UxP) Sergio Massa’s victory in the general election on October 22. At the Herald we talked about the dramatic shift as we watched the results roll in but batacazo was the word of the night a thundering surprise, a colossal stroke of luck or an unexpected, resounding failure, depending on who you’re talking about. 

According to the Real Academia Española, batacazo in Argentina and other Latin American countries specifically meant an unexpected victory of a horse in a derby, which is particularly apt given the electoral context. Beyond that, the satisfying suffix bat– which puts us in the mind of a hit and our favorite linguistic cheerleader –azo, you can see why Martina kept wanting to use it. Batacazo just sounds better.


A lot came up as we covered internet fandoms mobilizing against far-right coalition La Libertad Avanza this week, but resurfaced xenophobic tweets by their vice presidential candidate brought the term colimba to the newsroom. 

The translation itself isn’t particularly complex: the colimba was the one-year mandatory Argentine military service or conscription which lasted from 1901 to 1994. But researching the term, apparently the origin story I knew may be apocryphal: relatives who had done the colimba said it was a portmanteau of corre, limpia y barre i.e. “run, clean and sweep,” apparently the main activities. To be fair I always thought it was weird — thinking that sweeping is a form of cleaning, for one — but what on earth do I know of involuntary military service?

Turns out while that may be the popular story, the term probably comes from a time-honored tradition of many, many languages: reverting letters or mixing the order of word phonemes to make new ones. In English there’s pig Latin and backslang, in French there’s verlan and in Spanish we have vesre (from the word revés). So take a lunfardo word for soldier, milico, give it the vesre treatment and you get colimi and later colimba. In defense of my relatives, since lunfardo predates the conscription there’s a chance that the portmanteau definition was a new ad-hoc evolution of an existing term. 

‘Having your dinner for lunch’

This was an idiom used by Gabriel Morini in his analysis of the new era of campaigning ahead of the ballotage, specifically about LLA’s Javier Milei. No almorzarse la cena or “not having your dinner for lunch” isn’t a popular phrase — in fact, most hits on Google come from politicians — but refers to not celebrating ahead of time, resting on your laurels. Although largely understandable in context, the rub was that “having your dinner for lunch” was in the title of the piece and would seem like a non sequitur.

Idioms are probably one of the hardest things to get across and translate — props to Amy for almost offhandedly coming up with the alternative we went with, “counting your chickens before they hatch.” Certain Argentine journalists who shall remain anonymous confided that they understood the idiom better after it was translated. 

Not that the idea is uncommon: we are a country of cábalas (superstitious rituals to bring good luck), and being wary of celebrating ahead of time is ingrained. If you want to convey something similar, go with the more prosaic Nunca hay que festejar antes de tiempo. If you insist on an idiom, perhaps No cantar victoria antes de la gloria (Don’t sing/claim victory before earning the glory). In fact, no cantes victoria will do.


On election day we asked Molly to do a story on the electoral perlitas and somewhat rudely just kept talking about what little pearls we might get until someone thought to let her know what we were going on about.

A “pearl” or “little pearl” in lunfardo meant a mistake and today is often used as “blooper.” In the context of the elections, there are always ridiculous, funny, and sometimes grotesque stories of Argentine voters at the ballot boxes — in case you missed Molly’s piece, we got a banana in pajama(s) this time round.  According to Todo Tango, this particular meaning is of journalistic origin, although I was unable to find out why. 

On looking into it, though, I did find a 1965 dictionary of “Italianisms” that permeated our Spanish with the terms perla madona and perlamadona — adaptations of “Per la Madonna!” or “By the Holy Mary!” I just love the idea of journalists at the turn of the century going “Well, there’s another ‘holy shit’ for your story.” To be clear, I’m not saying this is where it comes from — it’s just a pearl that came up in my research, so to speak.

Whatever the origin of perla as a term for electoral tomfoolery, any journalist going through such coverage can tell you why those stories are precious. 

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