Inside the nearly impossible quest to translate “Make America Great Again” into Spanish

Then there are things that do not get lost in translation.
Then there are things that do not get lost in translation.
Image: AP Photo/Marco Ugarte
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  • Que América vuelva a ser grande
  • Haz América grande otra vez
  • Hagamos que América vuelva a ser grande
  • Devolvámosle a los Estados Unidos su grandeza
  • Rehacer la grandeza de América
  • Hagamos América grande de nuevo
  • ¡Arriba América!

How do you say “Make America Great Again” in Spanish?

For Spain’s El PaísPablo de Llano interviewed several (link in Spanish) translators and authors about the problem of rendering Donald Trump’s famous campaign slogan in their native tongue. They came up with the variants above, and more besides.

Spanish doesn’t generally have trouble with political slogans; the tumultuous history of the Spanish-speaking world has given rise to many unforgettable ones. There’s Che Guevara’s ¡Hasta la victoria siempre! (Ever onwards to victory!), the rallying-cry of the Cuban revolution. The ¡No pasarán! (They shall not pass!) of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War was later taken up by anti-fascists in 1930s Britain and rebels in 1980s Central America, and crops up in protests worldwide to this day. And, of course, ¡Sí se puede!—coined in the 1970s by Cesar Chávez, a farmers’ union organizer in the US—was adopted by Barack Obama as “Yes we can!” during his 2008 presidential campaign.

But slogans rarely translate well into another language, because a good one packs so much into so little. Trump’s lemma “contains multitudes,” wrote the Washington Post’s Chris Cilliza: It ”perfectly encapsulated the nostalgia mixed with disappointment and anger” of many American voters. It has a clear objective and states it with a lot of confidence, Eoghan McDermott, a communications specialist, told Ireland’s The Journal. It “harkens back to a utopian past, without elaborating on what exactly made that past great,” explains Rebecca Hansen in the Brown Political Review.

And, of course, it just sounds good. There is assonance between make and –meric-, and between great and –gain, as well as in the emphasized pairs of vowels: make/greaand America/again. And there is a rousing martial rhythm to its sequence of syllables, a four-beat goose-step marching from the country’s glorious past into its shining future.

Good luck getting all that into another language. In Spanish it’s especially difficult, for several reasons.

Grande means “great” but also just “big”. So Haz América grande otra vez could mean ”Make America big again.”

Then, the verb hacer means “make” but also “do.” “Do America great again”? Weird.

Haz is the imperative of hacer, but the “make” in Trump’s phrase is more of a collective exhortation; it’s an unspoken “let’s make” or “we’ll make” or even “I’ll make”. “Let’s make” is hagamos, which adds two syllables. Clunky.

The “make X Y” construction, which is ubiquitous in English, isn’t so common in Spanish; it’s more natural to say something like Hagamos que América sea grande otra vez, “Let’s make it that America be great again.” Even clunkier.

And grande otra vez is a “syntactic anglicism,” Jordi Doce, a translator of classic poets such as William Blake and T. S. Eliot, told El País. In other words, it just doesn’t sound like Spanish. He suggests Hagamos que América vuelva a ser grande—”Let’s make it that America return to being great.”

Last, but not least, to Spanish-speakers América usually implies the whole of the Americas. For the US, they say Estados Unidos.

No wonder some translators recommend abandoning the original phrasing altogether, for something like Devolvámosle a los Estados Unidos su grandeza (“Let’s return the United States’ greatness to it”) or Rehacer la grandeza de América (“To remake the greatness of America”). And one suggested simply ¡Arriba América! (“Up with America!”) That might be grimly appropriate: ¡Arriba España! was the motto of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain.