What Animal References Imply in Different Languages

The names which are given to animal species are exclusive, they have no grey areas. An animal’s name is used to refer to a given species, and not to another. Among languages, the nomenclature of animals has a fairly organized correlation, in such a way as to allow someone to search for a species in Wikipedia in one language and to have that same animal appear if we change the language configuration.

Nevertheless, when comparing the uses that different languages have for different animals, a series of interesting challenges arise for translators. Amongst the different uses given to animal nomenclature, the following stand out:

Metaphoric Use

If not the most common, this is the one of the primary uses to be found in Rioplatense Spanish, and possibly in many other languages. I will focus on two examples that suppose equivalencies between languages. Although the term yegua (female horse) is used in Rioplatense Spanish to commend the female figure, it is also used as a disparaging term to refer to a woman that is provocative, arrogant, conceited, etc. Nevertheless, if we wanted to translate this last word to British English, the correct term would be cow.

The expression piel de gallina (literally, “chicken skin”) alludes to the symptom manifested on the skin when someone experiences something moving or heart-rending. However, in English, this same phenomenon occurs with the goose: the sensation of “getting goose bumps.”

Following in the concept of fowl, let’s think of a situation to translate the script of the movie Back to the Future, in which Marty McFly’s father is accused of being a “chicken” (pollo in Spanish) by his arch-enemy Biff. While they use the word chicken in English, in all of the versions of Back to the Future that I’ve seen translated into Spanish, they have always used the word gallina (“hen”), which, as mentioned above, is not the literal translation (pollo).

Vocative Use

I will analyze only one case of which I have an example used by the same person in two different situations. In the movie 8 Mile, starring the rapper Eminem, the characters use the vocative “dog” instead of more commonly used vocatives such as “man” or “dude.” This use of the canine vocative also appears in Eminem’s song Stan, which achieved fame thanks to its mash-up with Dido’s song Thank You, in which the singer represents the star hounded by a fan, and says “I say that shit just clowning, dog.” Another similar use of the vocative occurs in Mexican Spanish with the term Cabrón (literally, “large goat”).

Use by Analogy

Although there are not many animal species that stand out because of their bodily hygiene, in Spanish, the word used to refer to a bad smell is once again the male goat, or chivo. A sweaty smell is usually said “olor a chivo” (smell of goat), for mysterious reasons.

Anecdotal Use

This may be the most colorful case, as well as the one with the richest history. In Argentine Spanish, a mulero (literally a “muleteer”) is used to refer to someone who acts in a “cheating” manner. As legend has it, the merchants that transported products on their mules sometimes had their pack animals put a foot on the scales when weighing their goods. From there is derived the term meter la mula (“put the mule”) and by extension, mulero.