Saturday, 17 December 2016

Cracking the (Colombian) Spanish code

'When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.' It's very difficult to argue against that one. As a species, we're good at talking a good talk, but we don't always follow it up with the appropriate action if and when required.

EEUU; a bit over the top lads, no?
You could just leave it at EU lads ... (Image from
Alongside 'said' in the opening saying, we can add 'written' (yes, this coming from a blogger and all). The legal world is quite adept at that. The old adage of 'less is more' seems anathema to it. It likes to make things that should be pretty straightforward to comprehend – and act upon – come across as if they were written by somebody not of this world.

Yet some languages – specifically Spanish (Colombian Spanish anyway) in this case – are more culpable than others in this regard; and it's not exclusive to the legal sphere.

A common observation among those who translate Spanish to English here in Colombia is that the former is overly and unnecessarily wordy. Indeed it can be quite the head-scratcher to figure out what's being said. This tends to be worse if someone has made a literal translation of their Spanish into English and asks you to proofread.

Of course it's not always best practice to directly translate from one language to another, each one has its peculiarities, but what we're getting at here is what seems to be the same thing said a number of times, just in different ways. Plus, a lot of the time it's written in ridiculously long sentences devoid of punctuation.

In reference to the revised peace agreement between the Colombian government and Farc guerrillas, Britain's Guardian newspaper, inadvertently perhaps, touched on this: "Although the text of the new agreement was not immediately published, the president, Juan Manuel Santos, laid out certain changes in a televised speech. Some are little more than clarifications of the often-vague language of the text. Other modifications are more substantial."

For those who have had to work with Spanish texts before, that 'often-vague language' is something that will resonate. In legal and political contexts, as happens with other languages, it might be deliberate: leave things open to as many interpretations as possible. A reason, perhaps, why the Colombian constitution is quite lengthy. However, Spanish seems to bring this verbose approach to every sphere.

On a more trivial note, take abbreviations, where there is a doubling up on letters in some cases. For example, the United States (US), ' Estados Unidos' in Spanish, is written 'EEUU' in the abbreviated form. 'Fuerzas Militares' (literally 'Military Forces') abbreviates as 'FFMM'. (It's to do with plural terms, although it's not done in all cases.) Think about ink costs when printing these things out guys.

Going slightly off topic, football commentators in these parts are masters at making an uneventful football match seem as if it's the most exciting thing ever, spluttering out a thousand words a minute. The Simpsons did a good take on this years ago (back when The Simpsons was enjoyable).

There are a lot of things to like about the (Colombian) Spanish language and culture. It just seems that at times it could do with a bit of streamlining. There might be more than one way to write the same thing, but you don't need to put them all down at the same time.
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Monday, 5 December 2016

A criminal's perfect drug?

Picture the scenario. You meet a stranger on the street, have a brief, perhaps cordial exchange, and moments later you're handing over practically everything you have in your possession. If you've your bank cards on you, you might even go the nearest ATM, withdraw your limit and give it to your recently met acquaintance.
Most scopolamine attacks happen during or after a night out. Taking public transport home alone can be risky ...
Scopolamine: Bringing people in Bogotá on a 'trip' they don't want to go on?
Nice, if you're on the receiving end of such 'generosity' that is. If only, eh? Yet, here in Bogotá, these kinds of things do happen. No, it's not a case of there being more giving types here compared to other places – it's more likely the opposite on that score.

It's all to do with what you could describe as a type of hypnotising drug, sourced from plants found in these parts. For those unaware of scopolamine/hyoscine, or Devil's Breath as it's also called, how it allegedly affects individuals under its influence reads like some sort of horror/science fiction movie.

Basically, if you're unlucky enough to be exposed to it, so it goes, you'll become completely subservient to whoever happens to be around you; you'll pretty much do whatever they ask you to do. You can still function, superficially and physically in any case, more or less as normal. The problem is that you lose your will power. Pretty much whatever is asked of you, you'll do, no questions asked.

Now some pharmacological experts are unwilling to give scopolamine, or whatever similar version of it is used, such lofty 'credit' as a drug that takes away your will power with just the slightest sniff of it. They dispute the commonly held belief that inhaling a small dose in powder form – one of the ways Devil's Breath dispensers drug their victims is by blowing it in their faces – would instantly send somebody into a puppet-like stupor.

Nonetheless, you'll find plenty of people who were robbed or taken advantage of in Bogotá who swear that they were maliciously administered something that dramatically altered their behaviour, something other than the usual alcohol and whatever else they might be having.
Brugmansia, the innocent source of something much more sinister ...
The Brugmansia plant, source of scopolamine. (Photo from web.) 
So for those who have had nights where they've found themselves acting completely out of character in the company of strangers – and normally robbed to boot – they're convinced that if it's not exactly scopolamine that's to blame, some sort of nasty concoction is.

Despite all the anecdotes of such freaky episodes, in a lot the cases there's a lack of hard evidence available to say whether it was actually Devil's Breath at play or not – that is to say, no toxicology tests were taken.

For this reason, it continues to remain in some sort of limbo: an urban myth or a dangerous criminal reality? Whatever the case, for some victims of crime in Bogotá, something sinister has been, and continues to be, lurking in the air. More reasons to always have the guard up around here.
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