“to reduce and bring something to memory”

translation and selection by janet hendrickson
from the tesoro de la lengua castellana o española
of sebastián de covarrubias



ABORRECER. Abhor. It means to love a thing badly, with the fear and horror or annoyance one feels toward it.

ANSIA. Longing. The distress and squeezing of the heart.

ENVIDIA. Envy. A pain conceived in the breast from others’ good and prosperity; the envious one nails his woeful, glowering eyes on the one he envies, and he looks at him, as they say, with an evil eye. Envy’s poison is a neighbor’s prosperity and good fortune; its sweet food is his hardship and calamity: envy cries when others laugh and laughs when everyone cries. The worst part is that this venom tends to be begotten in the breasts of those who are our greatest friends.

ESPIRAR. Exhale. To expel the spirit; if it is taken for the air we respire, it is to breathe, more commonly, it means to die, to surrender the soul, the spirit. Aspire, to have the heart to ascend to a greater place; respire, to rest; respiration, the act of gasping. Conspiracy, the conjuration. Inspire, to reveal in spirit, to put some good thought into the heart and soul to carry it out. To sigh, to tear the spirit and breath from the breast with pain and grief of mind, because in its distress, the heart burns and feels the need to breathe and draw air in with greater strength, with which it forms the sigh.

YUNQUE. Anvil. To be an anvil means to suffer and be quiet. The anvil always remains in its being.


ACORDAR. To remember. To reduce and bring something to memory.

PENSAR. To think. To imagine or turn something over in one’s memory. He who thinks weighs things.


ENTRAR. Enter. To enter a house, to enter religion, to enter a game, to enter the dance.

SALIR. To go out. To leave the house and leave one’s huts, to go out to the country, go out to the cause, go out to the bullring, etc.

VOLAR. To fly. It is proper to the birds.


ESPEJO. Mirror. The consulted mirror answers each person with what he is directly and with truth. Some have used mirrors to compose and moderate their actions and the movement of their body and face. Women seek counsel from mirrors to adorn themselves; uglies and beauties all use mirrors to amend faults. In the art of fabricating mirrors there are wondrous things. The good friend is a mirror of man.

LANTERNA. Lantern. The little tower of leaves of horn or plates of glass or sheets of tin, where we carry a lit and enclosed light, so that the air does not kill it on us.

MARIPOSA. Moth, butterfly. A little animal counted among the winged little worms, the most imbecile of all that can be. This has an inclination to enter the light of the candle, persisting again and again, until at last it burns. 


LICOR. Liquor. Every liquid thing, liquid and fluid thing.

NADAR. To swim. Swimmer, he who knows how to swim and the teacher who teaches swimming, a very important thing in the places where swimming can be practiced, because it is so necessary for war and for peace.

PROFUNDO. Deep. Like the depth of the sea.

PUERTO. Port. A place on the seashore, fitted for ships to retire without being exhausted by tempests.

TEMPESTAD. Tempest. The fortune in the sea.


ENJAMBRE. Swarm. The assembly of bees that populate a hive, often clinging to each other like a cluster of grapes.

ESCALA. Ladder. One of the war machines propped against enemy walls.

ESPAÑA. Spain. In the past, Spain must have been for other nations what the Indies now are for us.

PEPINO. Cucumber. Bang, the blow dealt with the cucumber.



Translator's Note

In 2019, I published an experimental translation of a work by Sebastián de Covarrubias, titled Treasure of the Castilian or Spanish Language (New Directions). Originally published in Spanish as Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española in 1611, this work was among the first monolingual dictionaries written in a European vernacular. My guiding constraint in that translation was to follow the order of my source text (a 2007 edition of the Tesoro that, among other editorial choices, modernized spelling and integrated a Supplement Covarrubias later wrote). I translated entries and fragments of entries, through a process that entailed erasing nearly all of this source text but respecting its alphabetical order and the order of phrases and sentences within each entry, to excavate a series of prose poems from the book. 

To explain in more detail: I made my first draft by translating as I read through Covarrubias' dictionary, starting with the letter C, then going back to A, and from there working alphabetically through the text. I translated very few of the original entries, and from them, only isolated sentences, parts of sentences, proverbs, sentences with holes cut out of them. After I went through the whole dictionary, I cut and polished my initial drafts of each letter—drafts that registered my first encounters with the text. I cut passages, for instance, that might require a slowed or labored reading to comprehend at a historical distance, as well as those that diminished, through explanation, the sense of wonder I felt in my first encounters with Covarrubias—for example, attributions for surprising citations and glosses on proverbs. More broadly, though, as I edited the translation, I cut what, intuitively, no longer fit with relation to the rest—entries, sentences, phrases, words. My logic in this process was more lyric than narrative or explanatory. The published book-length translation reduced the more than 1500 pages of the original dictionary to fifty. It also reduced my first drafts significantly—from 124 single-spaced pages, when combined into a Word document, to a final draft of twenty-eight.

My alphabetical constraint—following the order of my Spanish source—prompted a range of suggestions from friends and readers as to how a translation of Covarrubias’s text might be (re)ordered: for example, arranging entries by alphabetical order in English, or grouping entries by affinity. The translation here is an experiment in the latter approach. It also recovers entries that never made it into the final version of my book-length English Treasure, where entries were grouped by letter. To make this version, I revisited my early drafts from each letter of Covarrubias’s Tesoro, compiled neglected entries that seemed worth pursuing, felt out resonances between them, and re-organized the entries into the thematic categories that emerged: feeling, thinking, moving, light, water, encounters (among others ultimately excluded from this selection). Within these categories, I then followed the same procedure I had used in the book: selecting and discarding entries, erasing words and phrases within the excerpted entries, and finally re-ordering the entries that fell under each heading, in alphabetical order according to each entry’s original Spanish lemma (or headword).

My title for this experiment comes from the entry for “acordar,” whose definition (in the version presented here) distills one facet of translation’s work: “to reduce and bring something to memory.” I’ve been thinking periodically about relationships between translation and memory; here are a few brief, preliminary notes on those thoughts. Each word we use recalls, or is indexical of, a cumulative memory of its previous uses—our own uses of the word, as well as uses by people over time who are not us. Words are a collective memory, and they become recognizable (and are defined in dictionaries) through shared use. In their brevity, words reduce the expanse of that usage. Each word in translation is a memory, a small monument to its linguistic counterpart in a source text. What rises to the surface of memory (including translation-as-memory) often seems reduced, fragmentary, in relationship to its felt but unrecollected depths—hence critiques of translation as loss. However, the surface (and I think translation is more than surface) yields entry to the depths. Moving from A to T, the reduced definition of acordar, cited in my title, resonates with a fragment of Covarrubias’s definition of the tesoro, treasure, the word that titles his work. In the book-length Treasure, I translate the entry as follows:

A lurking corner, a hiding place, where money, gold or silver, pearls and jewels and like things were hidden so long ago that they left no memory or trace, nor knowledge of the person to whom they belonged; it follows that whoever finds the treasure has a right to it.

Hidden things, once found, may be a memory, aids to memory; they generate new memories.

Covarrubias stated his aim in the Treasure was etymological: to trace the origins, classical and vernacular, of contemporary Spanish. As such, his definitions often expand the historical memory compressed in a given word. His associative style exemplifies the culture of learned memory to which he belonged: his essayistic definitions cite frequently from classical and scriptural authority as well as anecdotes from firsthand experience. I hope this small complement—or supplement, to borrow Covarrubias’s term—to the English Treasure extends Covarrubias’s engagement, and my own, with traditions of collecting and recollecting language: traditions—translation among them—that gather language newly and again.

Janet Hendrickson


In the Classroom