In "Tom Sawyer" there's a case where "clay" is first translated as "arcilla"


The boys began to quiet down to whispers, now, for the stillness and gloom of the place oppressed their spirits. They went on, and presently entered and followed Tom's other corridor until they reached the "jumping-off place." The candles revealed the fact that it was not really a precipice, but only a steep clay hill twenty or thirty feet high. Tom whispered:


Siguieron hablando en voz muy baja, porque el silencio y la lobreguez de aquel lugar sobrecogía sus espíritus. Marcharon adelante y entraron después por la otra galería, explorada por Tom, hasta que llegaron al borde cortado a pico. Con las velas pudieron ver que no era realmente un despeñadero, sino un declive de arcilla de siete o diez metros de altura. Tom mur-muró:

...and then as "barro":


"Tom," said he, "auntie has been waiting for you all the afternoon. Mary got your Sunday clothes ready, and everybody's been fretting about you. Say -- ain't this grease and clay, on your clothes?"


— Tom —dijo—, la tía te ha estado aguardando toda la tarde. Mary te había ya sacado el traje de los domingos, y todo el mundo estaba rabiando contra ti. Dime, ¿no es sebo y barro es-to que tienes en la ropa?

Why the inconsistency?

  • clay as arcilla means that it was made for pottery; as barro means that it comes from earth.
    – Schwale
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 3:28
  • So it should be "barro" in both cases, right? Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 14:56
  • Clay is 'arcilla' and 'Barro' is mud. They are almost the same thing but you usually use mud (barro) when referring to dirty cloths or pottery.
    – DGaleano
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 17:41

2 Answers 2


clay /kleɪ/ n

  1. a very fine-grained material that consists of hydrated aluminium silicate, quartz, and organic fragments and occurs as sedimentary rocks, soils, and other deposits. It becomes plastic when moist but hardens on heating and is used in the manufacture of bricks, cement, ceramics, etc
  2. earth or mud in general

Collins Concise English Dictionary

In the first case, it's a technical description of the material. Arcilla, a word not common except when talking about pottery, rivers and clay hills, is adequate.

In the second case, the translator had to decide: Is Aunt Polly referring specifically to the material used in pottery, or is she using the word clay to refer to mud or earth in general? I think, and I think the translator also thought, that the latter is more likely (why would Aunt Polly be so specific?) and chose to translate it as barro.

  • I agree, it is said "tengo barro en los zapatos" (no one cares about the chemical composition nor the size of the particles), for example. Pero "montaña de tierra" me suena mucho más natural (aunque sea menos correcto) Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 12:44
  • The thing is, barro can mean both mud or clay (as used in pottery), but arcilla just has the "technical" meaning. For example, you can cook in a cazuela de barro.
    – MikMik
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 9:45

Even though the words "barro" and "arcilla" do not mean the same on their most strict way, they both can be used in an informal way of speaking to mean a kind of wet dirt.

I assume the translator didn't pay much attention to those little details. However, the message is still transmitted.

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