Game of Thrones’ ‘sicansíos’: Not the first word to be lost in translation
David Shariatmadari/ The Guardian
There’s a long history of phrases being garbled as they cross from one language to another – and some of them stick
Game of Thrones is known for its linguistic inventiveness. The TV adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy cycle has gone way further than the original novels ever did, with linguist David J Peterson fleshing out the languages of Essos and Westeros, Dothraki and Valyrian, from one or two phrases into grammatically coherent “conlangs” or constructed languages.The latest piece of vocabulary to come out of the show has nothing to do with him, however. In fact, it wasn’t purposely designed by anyone. I’m tempted, because of the genre we’re dealing with, to call it an epic fail. But it’s probably not as bad as leaving a Starbucks cup in shot. And it’s actually pretty fascinating.
A crucial line during one battle scene in a recent episode was “She can’t see us!”, delivered in light Geordie by Irish actor Liam Cunningham. In the dubbed Spanish version it came out as “Sicansíos!” (OK, let’s get this right: “¡Sicansíos!”). The problem is, there’s no such word. The accurate translation would have been no puede vernos. Perhaps viewers thought it was a spot of Valyrian. That must be what the voice actors assumed, or at least wanted their bosses to believe after having failed to decode Cunningham’s accent.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before viewers picked up on the mistake, with sicansíos rapidly becoming the most famous bit of nonsense since covfefe. What’s interesting about it from a linguistic point of view is how it takes the original phrase and stuffs it through an aural filter, adapting the sounds of English to ones Spanish speakers are used to. This is most obvious in the disappearance of the “sh” of “she”. European Spanish doesn’t naturally have this sound, but its version of “s” can sometimes resemble the English “sh” – hence the substitution in sicansíos.
This process – of forcing the square peg of a word from one language into the round hole of another – isn’t all that unusual. It’s happened throughout history when languages have come into contact – often through war or trade or cultural exchange. Unlike sicansíos, these foreign words often accompany favoured products or useful concepts, and end up being permanently borrowed. Not only that, but they can get squeezed through a sort of semantic filter, as well as an aural one.There’s a word in English, crayfish, that refers not to a fish but a relative of the lobster. We got that word from the Old French crevice (in modern French it’s écrevisse), which in turn came from Old High German krebiz, meaning crab.