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Musings on Morality Part II: The Absence of Wrong

July 14, 2009

Just as we found that only approximations for the moral sense of the word right exist in Spanish, and no direct translation is really 100% accurate, the case for the word wrong is worse.

Wrong has many denotations in English, just as right did. Some of these definitions certainly capture their approximate translation counterparts in Spanish. These include incorrecto, erroneo, equivocado, etc. We would take these, in the appropriate context in English, as incorrect, erroneous, and mistaken although none are truly right for wrong.

As always, I go back to the exercise of translating a given phrase back and forth starting in one language and moving to the other: If I ask any bilingual person to translate “That’s wrong” into Spanish, they would most likely say the best translation would be “Está mal”. Literally, this means “That’s bad”.

What is extremely interesting, and indicative of the absence of the real meaning of the word wrong in Spanish, is that on particular lists of translations of the word wrong into Spanish, the word bad does not even show up. Other Spanish translations include falso, al reves, injusto (false, the reverse, injust).

When we say “that’s wrong” especially when referring to a moral argument, none of these translations stand up to what wrong actually means in English. I would be very eager to have a conversation with someone who is anti-abortion and bilingual who can explain to me the nuance of meaning that is lost when translating the phrase “abortion is wrong.”

Abortion is bad? Incorrect? False? Unjust? Incorrect? Mistaken? The REVERSE? No, abortion is wrong.

Other great examples are the phrases and words wrong way, that’s so wrong, wrongful, and wrongdoing.

Wrong way kills me because the way it is used and translated in English and Spanish are so extremely different. When driving in the U.S., signs are posted that say “wrong way” (typically preceded by “do not enter”) to indicate that traffic will be coming out of that street, and if you see that side of the sign and enter from where you see those words, you will be going against traffic. Funny enough, the translation for this is contramano in Spanish. Literally meaning “against hand” and deriving from the Spanish origins of direction (a mano derecha, or, a mano iziquierda), “mano para allá” means “that way” and so forth. Again, we can see that they don’t say mala indicación, dirección equivocada, dirección incorrecta or any other derivative of the word wrong as it is translated.

“That’s so wrong,” is also funny because it is such an idiom even in English. Frequently, the whole phrase is “Oh my God, that’s so wrong,” when talking about a disgusting, dispicable, or extremely embarassing moment. How is this translated? Está remal is the closest I can come. Está jodido could also work but this is more expletive just like es una mierda. Most Spanish speakers I have talked to simply say that it doesn’t translate and say they would use a phrase directed more toward the person who did the wrong and call them a name: es un forro, es un desgraciado, etc.

Wrongful is most often translated as ilegal or injusto. Both of these taken as definitions are not wrong (ha) when taken in a more legal context, but it is again, the status of something that is wrongful that is not completed by these definitions.

Wrongdoing is translated as fechoría which when translated back to English could also be misdeed, transgression or misdoing. Again, in the legal, factual sense, these definitions are not, ahem, wrong, but fail to capture the moral context of what wrongdoing is. Misdeed, transgression, and misdoing all have an indication/connotation that the person committing these acts is going against a set of law or societal rules, perhaps, and not necessarily against some moral imperative.

I wonder if the absense of the English definition of the word wrong in its moral sense in Spanish indicates how the respective cultures work? Does the absence of this definition, or even stronger, the absense of the idea of wrong, and the extremely infrequent use of words like inmoral and injusto indicate that a society is predisposed to conceive of right and wrong in different ways?

I certainly think so. I look forward to your comments.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gaby permalink
    August 6, 2009 11:59 pm

    That was interesting in english the idea of ”wrong” is capted in one simple word that means a lot.
    ”Wrong” in spanish is separated in many ways depending on the action.. but I think neither the ”idea” nor the definition are missing. That ”idea” and definition morally speaking is given to us by our parents , teachers and experience. We just need more words to fully express them.

    Spanish has a very specific vocabulary…

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