Translation troubles: presidential debate edition

Cuddly kitties drinking cough syrup from the bottle? Some confounding translation challenges from Argentina’s presidential debates

a cat with half-closed eyes and dollars

The general election is in seven days and Argentine political discourse has been characteristically rich, let’s say. But the two presidential debates held on October 1 and 8 were truly overflowing with our national dialectic, for better or worse. Let’s briefly stick our heads into the crossfire, so to speak.


This is the word of the day come presidential debate time — with candidates accusing each other of throwing unfair chicanitas — and has nothing to do with Mexican culture or heritage. Almost as if Spanish across Latin America evolved differently despite its imposed origins: who’d’ve thought?

In Argentina, a chicana is a bad-faith provocation, usually when one politician tries to get a rise out of another. Chicana comes from the French word “chicane” (to squabble) — as does, of course, the English noun “chicanery” which usually conveys a sort of smooth deception. If you Google chicanery, the fifth episode of season three of Better Call Saul of the same name is the first result. 

So chicana could be a singular deception or a provocation, while chicaneada could become chicanery. It can also be used as a verb, chicanear. Lots of chicaneando in the run-up to the general elections, which wasn’t going to change having all the candidates in the same room with cameras trained on them.

Gatito mimoso

Myriam Bregman (Frente de Izquierda-Unidad, FIT-U) said what was probably the winning phrase of both debates with her description of Javier Milei (La Libertad Avanza, LLA) as a gatito mimoso (a cuddly kitten) for Argentina’s economic elites quickly becoming a trending topic and a generous font of social media memes. 

A little behind the scenes: of course, we were all chatting during the debates and Amy asked how I would translate Bregman’s burn. The newsroom was then subjected to me bewailing the fact that we don’t have a direct equivalent for mimo in English and it’s such a shame. Gato is also an insult in its own right but we can leave that translation trouble for another day.

Mimo is a flexible term to describe a form of affection that can range from a caress or a cuddle to an impromptu gift — for example, if you give yourself a mimo, you’re treating yourself. But the term can shapeshift and be conjugated: if it’s an adjective, mimado, it usually means the subject is spoiled (es un niño mimado). Another adjective form is mimoso/a/e, someone who enjoys receiving mimos. 

Even better, it’s also a verb: mimar. How lovely to reflect affection as an active thing with language. The diminutive, mimito is almost too endearing: when you gently stroke your pet’s fur, you’re giving them mimitos. As you should.

So the term is flexible and adorable to boot. There are, of course, English translations for each of its meanings, but I think mimo is singularly cute and expansive. 

Far be it from me to besmirch kittens that enjoy mimos (gatitos mimosos) though — as long as you’re not snuggling up to economic power, we’re cool.


In one of the more bizarre exchanges of the debate, Juntos por el Cambio candidate Patricia Bullrich accused Milei of having a bunch of thieves on LLA’s ballots, to which he essentially replied “Yeah, well so do you.” The word she used was chorros.

According to Oscar Conde in a paper on lunfardo in Argentine literature, the term comes from similar words in Caló, the language spoken by the Calé (Spanish and Portuguese Romani people). Chorar, meaning to steal, became chorear (to steal) and choreo (a robbery) in Argentina. Across the Río de la Plata region, choro turned into the trilled chorro while in Spain, it became chorizo for robber and choricear for robbing — yes, it sounds the same as the sausage. Although they dared to make it here as well, chorro is the more common term. 

Jarabe de pico

This was likely the most obscure phrase, coming from Juan Schiaretti  (Hacemos por Nuestro País) — a veritable fountain of interesting language throughout the candidates’ televised appearances. As well as convincing all of us that Córdoba is a panacea, described Kirchnerism as “syrup from the spout” instead of a truly progressive political movement. With an accompanying swigging gesture. 

The term apparently means talk is cheap, unsubstantiated claims easily made, with the emphasis on the mouth making promises: not going to lie, it rings a bit strange to me. I assumed it would be more like making sweet promises to lull you into a sense of security or something similar, with sugar camouflaging the taste of the drug in question. 

There’s also apparently an idiom, Jarabe de pico a muchos hizo ricos, i.e. “Cough syrup straight from the bottle made many people rich.” I’m going to get over the fact that it’s not a critique of the pharmaceutical industry and just say if you want to warn about the perils of opening your mouth in case you put your foot in it, maybe go for the classic el pez por la boca muere (“a fish dies from an open mouth”) instead. 

There is a lot at stake in this year’s election but luckily for the politicians on the debate stage, it’s just an idiom.

Share your thoughts and translation hang-ups with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald