Translation troubles: grab a shovel

Independent protesters and potentially unfriendly phrases feature in this week’s roundup of the Herald’s bilingual quandaries


This term is intimately tied with Argentine protests which literally translates to something like “self-summoned” — a protester who supports a cause without ties to a specific organization, social movement, or political party. The main network of activists organizing events and supporting the victims of the triple lesbicide in Barracas is called Autoconvocades Lesbianes por Barracas, which we translated as Independent Lesbians for Barracas. The word is gender–specific, so if you wanted to clarify that you’re at a protest without marching under a particular banner you could describe yourself as autoconvocado/a/e.

I’m surprised it hasn’t come up in translation troubles before because a non-affiliated protester might also just hit the streets spontaneously, as was the case during December’s cacerolazos, when we translated it as “non-affiliated protester.” We did vote the term cacerolazo as one of our words of 2023, though. 

Agarrar la pala

The Unicode Consortium, the non-profit that decides what emoji we have on our phones, posted samples of new ones we might be getting soon on their website. Judith pointed out that one could be particularly relevant to Argentines: the shovel.

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about shovels here — the emoji could also aptly convey levantar con pala — but when discussing the possible new icon, agarrar la pala came up. “Grab a shovel” or “pick up a shovel” is a pretty cutting and imperative way of saying “stop faffing around and get to work.” Make an effort. You could use it for yourself (perhaps bemoaning that you ought to grab a shovel) or maybe a no-nonsense friend could say it as well-meaning advice, but it’s usually said in conjunction with accusations of laziness. So I guess tone matters more than usual with this one.

Tomarse el palo

I’m afraid this week’s column might come off as a bit abrasive but rest assured the discussions about these words were very friendly. Tomarse el palo means — well, to piss off, and has the same versatility. According to Daniel Balmaceda, author of El apasionante origen de las palabras, the term comes from bullfighters running behind a wooden barrier to protect themselves from the bull they were torturing (palo meaning stick or post). 

You can unleash it as an admonishment and tell someone to go away (tomate el palo or the shorter tomátelas). Or, as was the case at the Herald, use it to describe the fact that you have to leave immediately and in a hurry (me tengo que tomar el palo).

I’m slightly concerned I just taught you to call people lazy and tell them piss off today. What assuages my conscience is that a translation trouble reader won’t reply to “Tomate el palo!” with a “Muchas gracias!”

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