Mixing up your ‘boludos’ with your ‘bondis’? Can’t find ‘quilombo’ in your dictionary? Wondering why the grumpy bus driver just told you to ‘walk to your mother’s shell’? We’ve all been there, stuttering ‘no entiendo’ as a porteño makes a mockery of last week’s intense Spanish course. That’s why I’m down in Bariloche, looking for James Bracken, the man who literally wrote ‘Che Boludo’, an (illustrated) book on Argentine slang.
Originally from Connecticut, James, 41, developed a passion for mountaineering while living in the tiny town of Silverton, Colorado. On a climbing trip to Chile’s Torres del Paine in 2002 he met his love, Damiana, and the two hiked back over the Andes to her home town of Bariloche. The couple now live there with their two children, Kai and Lilen, in a wooden house that James, a carpenter by trade, built from scratch himself.
How was your Spanish when you first came down here?
I had a fairly wide vocabulary but I couldnt conjugate verbs so I would just comunicate in the simple present tense. But I got by, and Damiana didnt speak much English. She has been my mentor all along, for Spanish and slang.
So you didn’t know any Argentine slang at first?
No, the Spanish I had learned was through some of the Mexicans that I used to work with in the construction business and my travels to Peru and Central America, where the language was very different. I’d go out with Damiana and her friends, taking a little notepad and writing down any word I didn’t recognise or couldn’t find in the dictionary.
And how did that turn into ‘Che Boludo’?
Well, I ended up with pages and pages of words, and a friend said I should compile a dictionary with them. It made sense. I mean, if somebody had all this organised it would be a much quicker learning process for foreigners. And also it’s just funny. You translate some of these words and phrases literally, and it’s hilarious.
What’s your favourite bit of slang?
Everybody asks me this and I always give the same answer: pedo (fart). When I first heard it, I couldn’t understand how it could be used in so many expressions: estar en pedo (to be drunk), ni en pedo (no way), al pedo (not doing anything) etc. But pedo is old news. Bronca is currently the word I enjoy hearing most. It means anger, rage, the pissed off feeling you get when dealing with Argentine bureaucracy or when someone cuts you off in traffic. Its almost an onomatopoeia. say it: BRONCA. It’s a good release.
Do you still take the notebook out with you?
Oh yeah, I actually heard a new expression yesterday. ‘Estar en curda‘, it means to be drunk. I don’t have as much time these days given my family and house, but it’s still interesting when you hear something new.
What about when you travel around Argentina – do you listen out for the different regional accents and slang?
Absolutely, one of the friends who helped me with this book is from Córdoba, where they are really big on word play. Everybody tells me its a whole different book waiting to be written. I havent been there myself, but Cordobeses have the reputation of being the true ‘chamulleros‘ in Argentina. Most people from Bariloche or further south come from Buenos Aires or Mar del Plata, and speak the Rio Platense dialect. If you go further north, to Mendoza, they speak more with a Chilean accent, though they hate it if you tell them that. In San Juan they dont have the ‘jj’ sound for double ‘ll’. And then Chile is a whole different world…
Do you know any Chilean slang?
They say ‘huevon’ a lot, and ‘yapo’, which is like ‘che’ in Argentina. Chile has a really unique culture: very indigenous but with a strong German influence. Argentines love to diss them, but they kind to have their shit together a bit more I think.
Do they diss you for writing this book?
No, I wrote this for gringos but the Argentines love it. I don’t know percentages of who buys the book, but for them it’s a strong sense of their identity. Even those who don’t speak English or understand the translation rave about the book, they just love that there is a collection of these expressions and words. I get mainly good feedback, though my editor once showed me a blog, which was written by an Argentine, who said things like: ‘this gringo studies us like rats in a lab, makes millions, and then fucks off’. I was having a bad day and left an aggressive comment on his blog. I’ve not checked back to see if he responded.
Anyone with your book will know a few local gestures you can give him. Was it your idea to include the drawings?
I got a friend of mine, Martín, who is a classic ‘hippie artist’, living in a school bus and constantly moving around, to draw them. It was like pulling teeth trying to get him to do it. I’d go to pick up the drawings and his bus would be gone, so I’d have to ask where he went and find him again. I actually got to know Bariloche by looking for Martín. At one point I considered calling the book ‘Buscando Martín’.
How are your Argentine gestures?
I actually learned a new one the other day [taps two fingers on shoulder]. That means the cops are coming. It from the stripes they have on the shoulder. A friend of mine was telling me that when he was in Spain some guys busking in the train station and he was trying to signal to them that the cops were coming, but they didnt have a clue what he meant. There was a point where I was confusing ‘que te pasa’ with ‘quiqui’, which means fear. I don’t know if that is supposed to be like your sphincter tightening… I haven’t gotten a straight answer about it.
It wouldn’t surprise me. In the book’s intro you talk about political correctness, or lack of it, in Argentine speech. How did you find it when you arrived?
I thought it was interesting because in the US and UK in the last 20 years political correctness has gone mad. I mean, it’s good up to a point, but it’s gone a bit over the top. It hasn’t eradicated racism, or touched anywhere near the root of the problem. Here everything is taken with a pinch of salt, though of course racism exists here too and some words are still used in a derrogatry fashion. It all depends on the context, which for me is the way language really works.
Were you ever worried that foreigners would read your book and start sprouting terms out of context?
Yeah, that’s why I included a warning at the beginning. At one point I thought I may have created a bit of a monster. I met someone who was throwing words around, and they had my book and I thought, ‘oh god what have I done’. They were saying a bit of everything without having a good grasp of the language. Then again, I think I might have been the same. For me, it was hard to differentiate between slang and normal Spanish. I mean, how do you define slang? Is it anything not found in the Spanish-English dictionary or just that spoken by kids on the street? And it’s always changing, which is what keeps it interesting.