‘To Be or Not to Be’—in Spanish


John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922
(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Spanish has two verbs for “to be”: ser  and estar. The difference between them is dramatic, not to say existential. Ser  refers to the condition of being as a whole, whereas estar  places that condition in a temporal context. We say soy feliz  to describe a person’s character: I’m a happy person. Instead, we say estoy feliz  to refer to a passing mood: I’m happy now, but who knows about tomorrow? Of course, there are multiple, at times unexplainable, nuances to this dichotomy. For instance, it’s hard to explain exactly how, but the discrepancy between estoy feliz que soy feliz and soy feliz que estoy feliz sums up the complications Spanish speakers face when explaining what life is about.

The English translation is rather insipid: I’m happy that I’m happy!
Talking about translation, the conundrum between ser  and estar  has the potential of driving translators crazy. Not only are there numerous ways to translate a sentence, but a single verb has more than one meaning. Think of the first line of Don Quixote: “En un lugar de La Mancha de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme. …”  There are 22 full-fledged translations of the novel into English. The first sentence in each is often different, and sometimes—suspiciously—it isn’t. “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind. … ”, says John Ormsby. Instead, Tobias Smollett says: “In a certain corner of la Mancha, the name of which I do not choose to remember. … ”

But this is nothing in comparison with the rivalry between the two ways of saying “to be” en Español.

Years ago, while I was teaching Spanish grammar to medical students at Columbia University, students would ask me to explain the need for two verbs. It was crucial for them as doctors to use the appropriate one when asking about pain, for instance. I remember laughing with them (and at them, too!) at what appeared to be needless verbosity. Why use two verbs if it can be said with a single one?, they would ask. Well, because language is always arbitrary, which doesn’t mean it is inexact.

I was then a relatively recent newcomer to the United States. In Mexico, my place of birth, I don’t believe I had ever stopped to realize that, yes, Spanish had two ways of saying “to be.” Why would I? Nobody ever thought it should be done any other way.

Ironically, I now think the other way around: Why use only one verb if it can be said with two? In language, the more the merrier.

Anyway, this duality is relevant in thinking of Shakespeare’s most famous line in Spanish translation. I know of approximately 12 different renditions of “To be or not to be,” none of them identical; one or two are clearly more inspired than the rest. Disregarding for the sake of argument the rest of Hamlet’s soliloquy, the most common translation is ser o no ser, employing ser  because the Prince of Denmark is referring to his existential dilemma.

Yet that existential dilemma, expressed at the end of the 16th century, is about the clash between those two conditions: being as a whole and being in time. Might Spanish be better suited to express it than English?

“Ser y no estar”?
“Estar y no ser”?

By changing the conjunction from “or” to “and,” Hamlet’s riddle is pushed to an even higher level of intellectualism: He is himself indeed, but he isn’t capable of fitting in his own skin, at least not in the current situation.
More conservatively, one could translate the line as estar y no estar, reflecting his resistance to Claudius’s usurpation of the throne. That is, Hamlet, as his father’s son, always has a place in Denmark but not under the current circumstances.

The most common translation, ser o no ser, is still the most appropriate if what one seeks is not to unsettle even further the audience’s patience. But the ambiguities of “to be” in Spanish to me make the language more—how shall I say it?—Shakespearean.

Nota Bene: Spanish also has two verbs for “to know”: saber and conocer. The first one denotes knowledge of information, the second assumes acquaintance of people, places, or objects. Sé quien eres pero no te conozco. I know who you are but I don’t know you.

So what does Hamlet know about his dilemma? And how does he know it?

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