Every now and then I like to talk about some pressing grammatical or pronunciation issue re: Spanish. Today is one of those days. You can blame the fact that I walked all the way from my house to the Recoleta cemetary (yes, we have a Recoleta cemetary, and may I say, it is a far sight more interesting than the one of the same name in Buenos Aires, photos forthcoming). And during that time, I thought about a conversation I had recently with a friend, in which she said, “El no puede ver a mi primo.”
As an English speaker with a passing knowlege (or even perhaps a fairly deep knowlege) of Spanish, you might translate that as “he can’t see my cousin.” Imagine a situation where the person in question’s line of sight is blocked by a pole or other obstruction, and as such, he has no visual line to the cousin, and poof, he can’t see him. Demonios!
Now please erase the pole and the obstruction, and one of the aforementioned people. Because what you took to mean “he can’t see my cousin” actually means what we would say in English “he can’t be in the same room as my cousin” or “he can’t stand the sight of my cousin.”
Hmmm, the word poder (can, to be able) to mean something having nothing to do with actual ability. Interesting. (And in English we have a variation of that as well, you’ll notice that both of the above approximations also use the word can).
Now consider another expression we use all the time, also with can.
I can swim!
The I can/I can’t that we easily and mellifluously use in English has no place in Spanish. Well, it’s not that it has no place, but it doesn’t have the place it has in English.
I can swim (as in, I know how to swim, not as in, how will you get to the other side of the lake, “I can swim (there)”, is expressed with saber, for “to know (how)”
Here’s a case in which we use our version of poder (but not podar, as that means to prune, as in to cut off part of a plant), can, yet in Spanish to use poder means something different, as in the case that someone offers you a lift in their boat to the opposite side of a lake, but you’d really rather hoof (fin?) it, so you tell them you can swim. To tell them that you’re able, you’d say sé not puedo.
So there you have it. More proof that English to Spanish is not a one-to-one relationship, and further evidence (if you needed any) that it’s frustrating when someone asks you completely out of context what a single word means. And also that listening to Beyonce does not prevent me from going on grammatical tangents while all the while overhearing whistles and hisses designed to inform me that, in case I was wondering, I’m female.