Tuesday translation: the letter A, from a 17th century Spanish dictionary | Books


From The dictionary of the Castilian or Spanish language, by Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco, translated by Janet Hendrickson.


It’s so easy to pronounce. It is the first letter that a man speaks when he is born. It is pronounced, like the vowels that follow it, by puckering the lips and exhaling. The simplicity of a is such that its utterance is not refused to the mute, who with the a and with the help of their tone, the movement of their hands, their feet, their eyes and their body make us understand in an instant what the well-spoken could not with many words; the dumb, walking together, gossip more than the magpies. the a is the doctrine, the way, eternal bliss. the a, repeated three times, declares the impotence of the mute in speech; as for me, silent in what I seek, it is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, imploring my God to give me his life to complete this work for his glory and for the use of all. I don’t know of anyone who has taken on this task, leading it to the end I’m looking for. They called a the letter of health.


Signifies the first beginnings.


Collecting dew from flower to flower, the bee makes a liquor as sweet as honey, molding itself into its cunning wax honeycombs. He alone among the insects was created for the good of man. The bee leads to speeches about its choice of flowers; its know-how in the manufacture of its hexagonal cells; the clemency of its king. The bee is the symbol of the curious, who collect phrases like the bee picks flowers, making the work smooth and soft. The bee does not procreate by mating male and female, and they are nonetheless fertile because of this.


Infinite congregation of water; the depth of the deepest valleys, where vision fades, looking down from above.

(Right here)

Where I am.

(The water)

Water swallows the earth, extinguishes fire, rises in the air and alters it, and is above the heavens themselves. He breeds such a multitude of fish; it allows man to cover a great distance in a short time. Water has the virtue of refreshing, cleaning, and smoothing. It means the Holy Spirit. It means the wisdom of God, who is Christ. It means the peoples. Artificial waters, angel water, distilled with aromatic drugs, roses and others, orange blossom, jasmine, lemon blossom, myrtle.

‘Christ is the eagle with clear vision.’ Photograph: Drew Buckley / REX Shutterstock


The eagle kills the deer with a wonderful cunning: filling its wings with earth, leaping over the deer’s head, the eagle shakes the dust in the deer’s eyes, by which it blinds the deer and causes it to run, until ‘that the deer reaches a cliff, where the eagle drops it; he kills himself or breaks his legs. The eagle grabs the serpent in its talons and lifts it up in the air and tears it to pieces, but the serpent wraps around the eagle and catches its wings; he does not let the eagle fly; both fall to earth. The eagle lifts the turtle into the air and drops it onto a rock. The eagle is not afraid of lightning; when it thunders, the swan hides itself between the reeds and the rushes of the lakes. The eagle signifies Christ among men, like the eagle, queen among birds, for the flight by which Christ descended to the depths of the sensitive cord of the Virgin Mary. Christ is the eagle with keen vision; He contemplates the sun.


Wind, to be air in motion or caused in the air. It would take too long to state here how, where and from what are created the mist, the dew, the rain, the falling snow and the hail, the thunder and the lightning, the comets, the embers, the exhalations, the vortices and the yawns of the sky.


Garlic is so famous that it doesn’t need to be described. Garlic is not a food for courteous people. The leopard hates the smell; if the leopard’s lair is scrubbed with garlic, the leopard forsakes it. Garlic rubbed against the trunk of any tree repels caterpillars.


What is that? Nothing but dawn walking among the cabbages.


We ask, “Is this something? “We answer:” It’s nothing. A term which includes all that can be.


Some say that women have three uteri on the right and three on the left and one in the middle; some uteri create males, others females, and the middle one creates hermaphrodites. And others attribute even more uteri to women, and many do not allow all of that.


Rings were worn on the finger closest to the little finger of the left hand, for anatomists have found there a delicate nerve which goes from this finger to the heart; through it gold, like stone, communicates their virtue, by which they comfort.


The symbol of sadness and crying.

“He doesn’t make a sound except when he’s braying, in which case it’s unbearable. Photograph: Gary Ombler / Getty Images / Dorling Kindersley


He doesn’t make any noise, except when he’s braying, in which case he’s unbearable. A child can take the ass wherever he wants; the donkey brings us bread and wine; he pulls the water wheel; he carries the wheat to the mill; he cleans the house and smokes the fields; sometimes he plows; he threshes in season and harvests the grain; he has no gall. The donkey seems unfit for war, but some nations have used it in war; the donkeys of Palestine were more agile than the horses. Its head, affixed to a sown field, not only drives out birds but fertilizes the earth. They make sieves to sift the wheat from its skin. A hard and hard grows on the knees of donkeys; mixed with aged oil, this callus is so powerful that when you anoint yourself with it, even if you are a woman, a beard grows on it.


He is ungrateful.


These little spots that float in the air and can only be seen with the ray of sunlight passing through a slit in the window.

Translated from the Spanish by Janet Hendrickson


  • Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco (Toledo, 1539-1613) was a Spanish lexicographer, cryptographer, writer and priest. In 1605 he began to write the Tesoro de la lengua castellana or española, published in 1611, the first unilingual dictionary in the Romance language. This dictionary contains, within its encyclopedic scope, speculative etymologies by which Covarrubias sought to trace the roots from Spanish to Hebrew, which he considered to be the divinely inspired language of a pre-Babelian state in which the words and their meanings coincided perfectly. Covarrubias is also the author of Emblemas morales, published in 1610, and of Tratado de cifras, now lost.
  • Janet Hendrickson translated from Spanish and Portuguese. His translation of The future is not ours, an anthology of stories by Latin American writers born since 1970, has been published by Open Letter Books. His translations of fiction and essays have appeared in publications such as n + 1, The White Review and Granta. She received an MFA in Documentary Writing from the University of Iowa and is currently a doctoral student in Hispanic Literature at Cornell University.

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