6 Pithy Quotes About Life from Great Spanish-language Writers
One of the great pleasures of taking on a new language is discovering its top writers.
Revered Spanish-language literature is motivating because you get more out of it than just language practice, and because there is unique color to be enjoyed from reading in the original Spanish.
However, this can all seem a bit inaccessible at first.
How can beginning students get the above benefits without the frustration of trying to slog through a heavy tome, looking up every few words in their dictionary?
Bite-sized literary chunks can be the answer. That is to say, quotes, proverbs and sayings might hold the solution.
In this post I’m going to look at six approachable quotes from some of the most celebrated Spanish and Latin American writers. We’ll see what they have to say about life, plus some useful Spanish rules and vocabulary that can be picked up along the way.
6 Pithy Quotes from Great Spanish-language Writers
1. “Lo que me gusta de tu cuerpo es el sexo. Lo que me gusta de tu sexo es la boca. Lo que me gusta de tu boca es la lengua. Lo que me gusta de tu lengua es la palabra.“ — Julio Cortázar
English translation: “What I like about your body is its sexiness. What I like about your sexiness is your mouth. What I like about your mouth is your tongue. What I like about your tongue is the word.”
Like a fishmonger who fantasizes that anyone would drop drawers at the smell of perfectly cooked octopus, this famous Argentine writer thinks sexiness is all about a fine turn of phrase. Perhaps he’s not wrong, though. The twists in this quote are at least alluring.
My translation is admittedly not worthy. What to do with the word sexo? It means “sex,” of course, but in Spanish it is used—much more commonly than with its English counterpart—to denote the actual genitals, so Cortazar’s first line by itself may come off as rather impertinent to a Spanish ear. But it then becomes clear that what he really means is the person’s sexiness or sex appeal, not his or her genitals.
The phrase lo que me gusta de X es Y can be employed in all kinds of situations in Spanish. “Lo que me gusta de ti es tu talento en la pista” (what I like about you is your talent on the dance floor) is something one might say to seduce/placate a dancer.
2. “Algún día en cualquier parte, en cualquier lugar indefectiblemente te encontrarás a ti mismo, y ésa, sólo ésa, puede ser la más feliz o la más amarga de tus horas.“ — Pablo Neruda
English translation: “Someday, somewhere, in some place you will inevitably run into your own self, and that, only that, can be the happiest or the bitterest of your moments.”
The key verb here is encontrar, which has lots of meanings that are similar to English “to find”: encontrar las sardinas (to find the sardines), encontrar el amor (to find love) or encontrar a Ana (to run into Ana, or to have a planned meeting with her).
The reflexive form encontrarse is used to talk about location. We would usually just use the verb “to be” in English: la pescadería se encuentra en el mercado Santa Catarina (the fish seller is/is found in the Santa Catarina market). It can also be a metaphorical location, as in, me encuentro en una situación difícil (I find myself in a difficult situation).
To “find yourself” in Neruda’s soul-crushing (or soul-affirming) sense, you need to tack on the a mí mismo/a ti mismo/a sí mismo. For example, me encontré a mí mismo a través de la meditación (I found myself through meditation).
3. “Como no me he preocupado de nacer, no me preocupo de morir.“ — Federico García Lorca
English translation: Just as I didn’t worry about being born, I’m not worried about dying.
García Lorca’s crisp blurb for an insouciant life features the verb preocuparse, which doesn’t really mean “to be preoccupied,” but rather just “to worry.” (García Lorca would probably argue that all worries are needless preoccupations, but that’s another can of worms.)
Preocuparse can be used with either the preposition de or por. For most speakers these mean the same thing. You will also see the preposition sobre in written Spanish, but snottier grammarians disapprove.
What worries you? It’s cute that García Lorca can not worry about death, but what if he had read modern health reporting? Specificity breeds terror. Yo me preocupo del plástico BPA en las botellas de agua. (Me, I worry about the BPA plastic in water bottles.)
Let the Spanish-speaking world know what worries you with the same verb.
4. “Enamorarse es crear una religión cuyo Dios es falible.“ — Jorge Luis Borges
English translation: Falling in love is creating a religion whose God is fallible.
I’m going to print this up on cards and hand one to my girlfriend every time I burn the rice.
Note the use of the infinitive forms enamorarse and crear. The Spanish base form of the verb (ending in -ar, -er and –ir), a.k.a. the infinitive, gets used all of the time when we English speakers would often opt for other forms, especially our beloved gerunds (like “falling” and “creating”). In this form, the verb is actually functioning as a noun and denoting the general concept of the action:
- Pensar es gratis — Thinking is free
- Creer es poder — To believe is to be able to
- Nacer es un pecado — Being born is a sin
What profoundish thoughts about life can you come up with using infinitives? If you generate anything half as good as Borges’, my hat’s off to you.
5. “La guerra es la obra de arte de los militares, la coronación de su formación, el broche dorado de su profesión. No han sido creados para brillar en la Paz.“ — Isabel Allende
English translation: War is soldiers’ work of art, the crowning glory of their training, the gilded jewel of their profession. They were not born to shine in peace.
There are a few words here that tricky in the Spanish.
- broche — This can be a brooche as in English, or a simpler clasp on a jacket. But it can also be metaphorical, such as el broche de oro del evento (the highlight of the event).
- coronación — As in English, this can be a coronation. But here again it can have a figurative meaning, like one’s “crowning moment”.
- militar — This can actually be anyone who serves in the military, not just rank-and-file soldiers.
6. “A lo largo de la historia, la democracia y la felicidad no han producido nunca gran literatura.“ — Mario Vargas Llosa
English translation: Throughout history, democracy and happiness have never produced great literature.
Notice the use of articles here before general concepts: la historia, la democracia, la felicidad. We saw this in the previous quote too: la guerra.
The writers are not, however, talking about a specific, previously referenced war, type of democracy, etc., as one might be if using the English “the” before such a word. The definite articles el, la, los and las in Spanish can be used with general ideas and not just specific, previously discussed things.
Vargas Llosa is expressing a common sentiment in Latin American literature studies: that these works are great because they come out of politically troubled environments, not in spite of this.
There is a much, much larger world of Spanish-language literature that has been
corrupted enriched by the milieu it has come out of.
A good place to start for bite-sized profundity is Wikiquote in Spanish, especially the dazzlingly quotable Cortázar, who led off this post. Hopefully this will then generate further interest in some of these authors, their short stories and, eventually, their novels.
The broche dorado of Mose Hayward‘s literary oeuvre recounted dropping bombs on erupting volcanoes. It is now, somehow, out of print.