Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The words test and prueba, and related words, Part 3

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Thisis Part 3. Go to Part 2

Translating the English noun test (and related nouns) into Spanish

English-Spanish dictionaries tell us that the main word that translates Eng. test is prueba, a word that can refer to a ‘trial’ of any kind, where by trial we mean as ‘the process of testing the ability, quality or performance of somebody/something, especially before you make a final decision about them’ (OALD’s main definition of Eng. trial). So, for example, endurance test translates as prueba de resistencia, and to put something to the test is poner algo a prueba. English and Spanish have other words to refer to such ‘trials’ depending on the context but, as is often the case, there isn’t an exact one-to-one correspondence between the Spanish words and the English ones.

In Spanish, prueba is the broadest such term, one that covers the largest number of meanings (senses) to refer to trials (as defined above), such as the senses ‘experiment’, ‘trial’, ‘test’, ‘exam’, and even (some) ‘sports events’, or more distantly related senses such as ‘proof’, ‘evidence’ (in law), and ‘fitting’ (in clothes-making), as we shall see in a later section.

Looking at the educational context, we find that there are synonyms of prueba, such as examen and test in the, for instance, that may be used to translate Eng. test. In English, the most general word to refer to such trials is test, but it also has other synonyms in different contexts, such as exam, quiz, and examination.






Although in the words we just mentioned for each language, there are two pairs of cognates, namely Eng. exam ~ Sp. examen and Eng. test ~ Sp. test, the meanings and uses of the words in each of these pairs are not the same, even in the educational context. In other words, these cognates are only partial friends, that is, neither identical in meaning and usage (‘best friends’) nor totally different in that regard (‘false friends’).

In an educational context, Eng. test translates as prueba, but also as examen if the test is more formal or consequential, somewhat like the difference between test and exam in English, though not necessarily an identical difference. But Eng. test can also translate as Sp. test nowadays, but supposedly only if it is a multiple-choice test, though some speakers do extend the meaning of Sp. test to be more like that of Eng. test (not following the Academy’s recommendation). And the word examen in Spanish does not have to refer to a very important test either, at least in many varieties of Spanish and so it is not incorrect to translate Eng. test as Sp. examen (in addition to prueba), especially in some varieties of Spanish.

North-American English also has the synonym quiz to refer to school tests. Although in the UK the word quiz refers primarily to ‘a test of knowledge, especially as a competition for entertainment’ (COED), a meaning that can be translated as prueba in Spanish, in North America, the main meaning of the word quiz in an educational context is ‘a short spoken or written test that is often taken without preparation’ (MWALD). That can also be translated into Spanish as prueba, though some might use test as well nowadays, especially if the quiz is multiple-choice.

In English, an exam is a type of test, but as most dictionaries tell us, it is typically an ‘important’ test, e.g. ‘a spoken or written test of knowledge, especially an important one’ (LDCE). Although some Spanish speakers make a similar contrast between prueba and examen, in that the latter is more important or consequential, it is also acceptable to translate Eng. test as Sp. examen, as we mentioned earlier.

English also has the word examination, which in some contexts can be a synonym of exam, since one of this word’s senses is ‘a formal test of knowledge or proficiency in a subject or skill’ (COED). This sense of Eng. examination translates into Sp. as examen, or even prueba. But note that the word examination has other uses as well. In particular it can also mean ‘a detailed inspection or study’, i.e. ‘the action of examining’, a sense that could be translated as inspección; examen; reconocimiento, in a medical context; or registro, when referring to the examination of premises. In a legal context, examination refers to ‘the formal questioning of a defendant or witness in court’ (COED), a sense that translates as interrogatorio.

In non-educational contexts, the words we’ve been looking at are, again, used somewhat differently. Often the best translation of test is prueba, such as when test is used in the sense of ‘difficult situation’, as in the expression to put to the test, which translates as poner a prueba. But Spanish also often translates the word test as examen, not as prueba. So, for instance, driving test is examen de manejar in American Spanish (examen de conducir in Spain), not prueba de manejar/ conducir, though this may be an arbitrary choice, one due no doubt to the official and serious nature of this test. Note that in English, the word exam could be used to refer to the written part of a driving test, but probably not to the practical part.

In other contexts, the English word test may have different translations. So, for instance, in medicine, the English word test typically translates as análisis, as in análisis de sangre ‘blood test’ (never *test de sangre). In ophthalmology and other areas of the health field, revisión can also be a translation of Eng. test so, for instance, eye test translates as revisión de la vista. Note that in North American English, exam is often used in this context, and thus the expression eye exam is equivalent to eye test (an eye examination would be an entirely different thing, however).

As we saw earlier, Spanish borrowed the word test from English with the specific sense of a short, multiple-choice-type test, a type of test also borrowed from the English-speaking world, and later with the sense of psychological test, as in test sicológico ‘psychological test’. Only more recently has the word test come to be used in other contexts in Spanish, to talk about other types of tests, no doubt under the influence of English. So, we find, for instance, that the word test is sometimes used in Spanish in collocations such as pregnancy test, which in Spanish is traditionally called prueba de embarazo, but now also test de embarazo. These uses are discouraged by the Academy, but they may eventually become so common that even the Academy will have to recognize their validity.

Go to Part 4

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