Like Two Parts for Sex

We touch here on one of the most important yet least understood areas of biological and social existence. Eros and language mesh at every point. Intercourse and discourse, copula and copulation, are sub-classes of the dominant fact of communication. They arise from the life-need of the ego to reach out and comprehend, in the two vital senses of ‘understanding’ and ‘containment,’ another human being. Sex is a profoundly semantic act.
–George Steiner

Feminine discourse is not the language of opposites but a babel of eroticism, attachment, and empathy.
The binary mode of structuring the world is agonistic, to use the term employed by Walter J. Ong, who associates it with the adversarial nature of male ceremonial combat and contrasts it with the irenic, or conciliatory, discourse characteristic of “women’s liberation movements, student demonstrations, pacifism, and the substitution of the existential, noncontesting fugitive hero . . . in place of the agonistic hero of the older epic and romance.”
–Nancy Mairs

Joel Hoffman writes a Bible blog: “God Didn’t Say That.” And God Said is the title of one of the books he’s written. Hoffman works from the binary mode of structuring the world. In this blogpost of mine, I’m wanting to show how that works for him, but I’m also wanting to show alternatives to how he uses language and conceives of translation.

If you read his blog and his book, you notice the particular language of opposites in what Hoffman says: “What [Hoffman says] God said” vs. “What [he says] God did not say.” Let’s first look now at (A) Hoffman’s general view of language and of translation. Second, we can review (B) a particular case Hoffman gives outside the Bible to bolster his claims that apply to the Bible: “Como agua para chocolate” vs. “Like Water for Chocolate.” Finally, we can look together at (C) some of the limitations of Hoffman’s oppositional focus (and we might talk about [D] what Steiner and Mairs have said, as I’ve quoted them in the epigraphs above, and also what I’ve said by the title of my post).


In Hoffman’s above mentioned book (page 54), he gets to his general focus, a binary focus on language and on translation. He says:

[K]nowing what the Hebrew words mean is only one half of translating the Bible. The second and more difficult half is finding English words that do the same thing as the original Hebrew. More generally, translation consists of two parts: decoding the original language (Hebrew, in our case), and finding a translation in a new language (English, for us) that does the same thing as the original.

Notice the language of opposites here. Language and translation is structured by Hoffman into binaries. For language, there’s “what the Hebrew words mean” vs. “what the Hebrew words don’t mean”; there’s “the Hebrew words” – a sort of code vs. “knowing what the Hebrew words mean” – a “decoding” of the meaning code. In translation, then, there are also binaries: “knowing Hebrew word meanings” / “finding English words” to match; and “decoding the original” / “finding” its “new language” equivalent that can “do the same.” Hoffman states this binary as if that is the only and natural way language works. His oppositional focus on translation is just as tautological (and we can use tautological in both the logical and the rhetorical senses here). In other words, Hoffman presumes that language is so binary (without any need for proof) and he also talks as if translation is just a two-parted (while, in essense, repeating what he presupposes as part and parcel of “translation” of language).

(B) HOFFMAN’S “Como agua para chocolate” vs. “Like Water for Chocolate.”

In his book (pages 54-55), Hoffman focuses on a particular case “to understand the second half” of translation (not the decoding part but the other part, that part of “finding a translation in a new language [English, for us] that does the same thing as the original”). He goes into some detail with his particular example. I think it’s worth quoting all of it:

……In 1992, Laura Esquivel wrote a book in Spanish called Como agua para chocolate. In this case, the Spanish words are so familiar and easy to translate [i.e., to find English for] that we don’t even need the [decoding] techniques of the last chapter [of Hoffman’s book] to figure out what they mean: Como is “like,” agua is “water,” para is “for,” chocolate is “chocolate.” Accordingly, the English language version of the book (and then movie) was called Like Water for Chocolate.
…… Esquivel’s quirky story centers around a woman who cannot marry the man she wants because she is the youngest daughter, and a family tradition insists that she therefore be the one to care for her mother. The book is about the tension that results from unrequited love, family dynamics, and a generation gap.
…… But here’s the problem. The English phrase “like water for chocolate” doesn’t conjure up any particular image among English speakers. The heroine of the story is a cook, so people who read the book in English sometimes think that the “chocolate” in the title may refer to that. Other English speakers think that “water” instead of “chocolate” may be an image of poverty. But nothing clear comes to mind.
…… In Spanish, by contrast, “like water for chocolate” is a common expression based on the Spanish culinary tradition maintaining that hot chocolate is best prepared with water that is almost but not quite boiling. Therefore, “water for [making hot] chocolate” is water that is about to boil. [The previous brackets in the quoted phrase in the sentence preceding this one are Hoffman’s brackets; all others in this block quote are mine.] “At the boiling point,” we might say in English. The Spanish phrase has nothing to do with poverty and, actually, little to do with food.
…… So while “like water for chocolate” gets all of the words right in English, in the end it completely misses the point. Ms. Esquivel’s title foreshadows the internal tensions of her characters. The English translation foreshadows nothing.

In a public talk, Hoffman reportedly suggested that: “A more faithful translation of that book title might be ‘At the Boiling Point’.”

Notice the language of opposites here. Hoffman is interested in emphasizing that “in the end it completely misses the point.” That is, after he has done the first part (of decoding for us readers what Laura Esquivel said, that is the “point” of her book, the “point” of her book’s title), Hoffman goes on to part two. Part two is Hoffman’s having found English words for this point. “At the Boiling Point,” Hoffman says is the point of what Esquivel says. It is not, however, Hoffman says “Like Water for Chocolate.”


I’m not really wanting to critique how Hoffman reads the Spanish novel (or simply its title) Como agua para chocolate. It’s his process for coming to his point that I see as limited. By focusing so purely on what “the point” is and what it is not, Hoffman misses much.

Notice first how Hoffman misses the way he allows himself to resort to the very translation he says misses the point. Here’s his sentence again: “In Spanish, by contrast, ‘like water for chocolate’ is a common expression. . . .” If the English phrase so misses the Spanish point, then why use it to make one of your own points? Why not say, “In Spanish, by contrast, ‘como agua para chocolate’ is a common expression. . . .”?

Now notice how Hoffman misses any mention of the translators of Esquivel’s novel phrase. What do they see? What has motivated them? As a matter of fact, Esquivel’s phrase is not novel at all, and both she and her translators know that. It is, as Hoffman points out, a very common saying in Spanish. It’s been around for centuries. But Hoffman doesn’t care to say that “Like water for chocolate” is common now in English. It was common as a counterpart to the Spanish long before Esquivel’s character in her book was literally described as ‘como agua para chocolate’ and in English as literally ‘like water for chocolate.’ In both the Spanish and the English translation, the phrase is put in quotation marks. It’s a saying. People have used it to mean “boiling point” (in English and in Spanish). Moreover, they have used it to mean the “boiling point” in making hot cocoa and also the boiling point in temper when one “has been given water when [at a restaurant] he ordered chocolate” (as noted by Ernestine Sewell and Joyce Gibson Roach in their 1989 book, Eats: A Folk History of Texas Foods, page 91.) In my own reads of Esquivel’s book, I’m struck by how she’s expanding the meaning (or at least allows her readers to add meanings) to the phrases “como agua para chocolate” and “like water for chocolate.” These are sexual meanings that can, perhaps must now, be added. There are ambiguities that Hoffman’s decoded Spanish meaning and pointed English equivalent cannot handle.

However, alas, I’m out of time to write much more. We’ll definitely want to talk more about the translators who freely use “Like water for chocolate” in their English for their Spanish. Until then, let’s call this post Part One. If I have time, then we’ll move on to Part Two, maybe more.


4 responses to “Like Two Parts for Sex

  1. I did a Google search for your blog today, and suddenly I realized the origin of the name of your blog — it is a reference to this (apparently celebrated) article on teaching English. How sly!

    • Thanks for googling. If slightly sly, I haven’t always been so subtle about the fact that even Geoffrey Sirc, who wrote the article, isn’t celebrating it any more. When it was also “published” online (not just on the login-secured and but-2-year-old JSTOR), it was as much a rhetorical event as a serious academic essay. (Alas, not even the Way Back Machine can re-member all the inter-textual spectacle of what, and how, Sirc wrote for the now-defunct e-journal PRE/TEXT: Electra[Lite] — and punk today is something altogether different).

  2. Pingback: Como misioneros para Verdad | Mind Your Language

  3. Pingback: BBBubblin’: I Read It My Way | Mind Your Language

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