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Translating Onomatopoeias

An onomatopoeia (according to Webster’s definition) is “the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it.” These are used linguistically to describe sounds (boom, bang, click) and can even serve to express a thing or idea visually instead of aurally, like “zig-zag” or a “tick.”

Onomatopoeias are often used to describe the sounds animals make. And every language has its own way to express these sounds. Some are very similar in English and Spanish, like the sound a duck makes: “cuac” (Spanish) and “quack” (English), and the sound a cat makes: “miau” (Spanish), “meow” (English). Others however, are quite different. Spanish-speaking dogs say “guau,” while English-speaking canines say “woof.” A rooster in Ecuador crows “kikiriki” and birds sing “pi-pi” or “pío-pío,” but an Australian rooster says “cock-a-doodle-doo” and birds say “tweet.”

Other sounds expressed through an onomatopoeia also vary, such as the “beep” or “pip” of an answering machine and the “toc-toc” or “knock-knock” at the door. An interesting aspect of this (and something quite complicated when translating from English into Spanish) is that a lot of onomatopoeic words in English are used not just to represent a sound, but are verbs express the production of that sound and/or noun. In Spanish for example, one would say “cerró la puerta de un portazo/ dio un portazo,” but it’s English translation is simply “slam the door (shut),”using “slam,” an onomatopoeia for “portazo” as a verb. Another example can be seen when someone is at the door. English uses the verb “knock,” while a verb form of “toc toc” doesn’t exist in Spanish. In English, a clock “ticks,” while in Spanish one would say that the clock “hace tic tac o marca el paso del tiempo). Some examples of these onomatopoeia verbs are: “clink,” “swish,” “swoosh,” “splash,” “pop,” “honk,” “roar,” “yawn,” etc.

This Wikipedia page has a list of useful onomatopoeic sounds for animals, along with the Spanish verb to describe them (a sheep “bala,” coyotes “aúllan,” etc.

Onomatopoeias are also often seen in comic books, especially these verb forms, splashed across the screen in the famous fight screens of the sixties.

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