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I spent some time recently attempting to translate into English some Aesop's fables that had been translated into Spanish (from the original Greek I am presuming). Initially, I thought that this would be something that would be good for my level of Spanish. I soon discovered, however, that this translation project was a bit more challenging than I was expecting due to the phrasing of certain passages as well as some of the vocabulary.

One of the words that made me stop and think about how best to translate it was the word "zorra." I learned a while back that its predominant meaning is vulgar and not the proper way to refer to a female fox (which would be "zorro hembra"). When did it take on a vulgar connotation? I am assuming that the translations I am using for this project were made well before the word took on any pejorative meaning.

Furthermore, does anyone know why, when "zorro" could just as easily have been used for the translation of "fox" that at least one translator opted to use "zorra?" (In fact, if memory serves me correctly, the fox is often referred to as "Mr. Fox" in the English versions.) And was this translating of "fox" as "zorra" typical of other translations or just the isolated incidences of one or a handful of translators? At the page for the Aesop's fables (see link in my first paragraph), I see no fewer than 22 fables with "la zorra" in the title and those are just the ones that start with it, so it looks as if it is a pretty standard/common translation.

And while I am on this topic, let me also ask about how modern day translators deal with this type of issue today. For example, if someone wanted to write a new, revised, modern-day version of Aesop's fables, or some other work, how would a professional translator deal with words that have drifted from their original meanings? In other words, what would good translators consider good practice? Using this specific example, would a professional translator change "la zorra" to "el zorro?"

I did some cursory searching online for information on this, but what I found was rather scant and nothing that addressed this directly except for some comments that were made speculatively about it. Thanks in advance for any insight you may have on this topic.

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    Perhaps the female of the species is believed to be craftier than the male. – mdewey Aug 21 '16 at 20:34
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    I haven't been able to find the originals in greek. How can we be sure that Aesop didn't use the female fox on his original version? – DGaleano Aug 22 '16 at 13:20
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    Here on page 20 you can find the original greek and the translation word by word into spanish with notes and comments. That text makes me think Aesop used the female fox from the beginning. So I think the translation to Mr Fox is not correct and Aesop wrote about Ms. Fox. – DGaleano Aug 22 '16 at 13:47
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    The Dictionary of the Real Academia says that, when referring to the species, both the feminine and masculine form (zorro and zorra) can be used, Now, it would be useful to find out if in the past there was a preference for the feminine and when that began to change. – JMVanPelt Aug 22 '16 at 17:49
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This is a strange case where the female form is preferred as a generic by some groups of people. I have encountered "fox" translated as "zorra" many times and I don't really know why. However, as a native Spanish speaker, I would say that when referring to the carnivore mammal there is no difference between "zorro" and "zorra"; it is exactly the same. On the other hand, both words have secondary meanings and care should be taken when translating so that the meaning is not offensive. Also, if fox is associated with a person additional care should be taken. Examples:

  • If there is a person named Mr. Fox or Ms. Fox, the best approach is not to translate so it will read (in Spanish) "el señor Fox" " la señora Fox".
  • In the specific case of the fable you are citing; you have only three options that are equivalent: "el zorro", "la zorra" or "el señor zorro". In fact, you could also use "la señora zorra" but it could be taken wrongly by some people. In certain cases, if it couldn't be avoided, you could write something like "El señor y la señora zorro caminaban por el bosque". Note that we use the masculine as a generic and it is somewhat implied that both "zorros" are a family.
  • As you know, the classical sword ace: "el Zorro" couldn't have been "la Zorra" for the alias was supposed to depict a manly character.
  • However, you could call a man "la Zorra" if you are implying a deceiving and dishonest character.
  • When reffereing to a woman, the only possible implication is prostitute thus you should be very careful in this case.

Please take note that this reflect the point of view of a Northern Mexican. There could be other approaches in other countries because of the fact that the meaning of "zorro" and "zorra" may differ.

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    My fairly ancient Larrouse diccionario usual starts its entry for zorra with mamifero carnicero ... and its entry for zorro as macho de la zorra. It does not mark either of them as regional. – mdewey Aug 23 '16 at 12:18
  • I was wondering what Larousse dictionary said nowadays so i checked on larousse.mx and I found: zorra 1. Mamífero carnívoro cánido, de cola larga .... 2. Prostituta, mujer que mantiene .... zorro, a 1. Que es astuto o taimado. In my opinion, Larousse must update its entries.* – Krauss Aug 23 '16 at 23:55
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    I'm impressed with these answers and these posts. In fact, it is difficult to choose which is best, but I am giving the check mark to Krauss for the additional information he provided. It just may prevent someone from putting the proverbial "foot in one's mouth" one day. – Lisa Beck Aug 25 '16 at 1:45
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    @Krauss I found your additional comment about listings found in Larousse helpful as well. I've been using Reverso lately to beef up my vocabulary and since, in a search for "zorra," "fox" was listed fourth, (after three others I won't repeat here), it really tainted my impression of what "zorra" might mean and made me think that it might have the same effect as using the word "bitch" for female dog, which is technically correct, but would be jarring in certain environments. It would be considered inappropriate to refer to a female dog in a story as "Mrs. Bitch," even for a married female dog. – Lisa Beck Aug 25 '16 at 1:59
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In the original (ancient greek) version you can see the word (ἀλώπηξ). Here you can see the word can be used in masculine or femenine, but in the original text when refering to the fox Aesop uses ταύτην and ἡ which are femenine forms.

Is this (ancient greek) the source of the pejorative meaning of zorra or is there a previuos source (indo-european)?

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A lot of animal names are in the feminine form. For example, ballena, comadreja, rana, cebra, pantera, rata...

Even though both zorro and zorra exist, in Spain the animal was (and is¹) mainly known as zorra, so it was translated that way. Even if it wasn't, and the translator had the option of equally choose between zorro and zorra, it could be argued that zorra is the better choice, given that both the Latin and Greek words for fox are feminine.

In summary, whether you read zorra as a generic fox, or as a female zorro, it isn't a bad translation choice.

Samaniego (Spanish fable writer) sometimes used zorro, sometimes zorra.

Now, about the negative connotations. The word zorra started as a derogatory word, and it was later applied to the animal until then known as raposa. Sometimes happen that people avoid saying the name of a hated or frightful animal and call them by a characteristic of it, an euphemism or an insult. That's how, for example, fox comes from a word meaning thick haired, and renard (fox in French) from a fairy tales character.

Even the previous name of zorra, raposa, comes from *rabosa ("tail-ly"). The original Spanish name was vulpeja or gulpeja (from Latin vulpecula, "small fox").

So, the connotation was always there, but it isn't very important (I mean, it's the animal's name after all. A lot of animal names have negative connotations (dog, pig, worm, louse...) but it's not what you primarily think about when you see them mentioned in a fable), and almost unavoidable.

Regarding your last question: some fables are already known that way by everybody, like La zorra y las uvas. So I'd guess a modern translator would just use that word, but I don't really know if the negative meanings are more important to current translators, so they'd avoid using zorra.

As a side note, we have some local fables in Argentina where the character is a fox, and it's a zorro. It even has a name (Juan).


¹ @fedorqui, in the comments, disagrees. He says zorro is more common in Spain when referring to the animal regardless of sex. Google gives conflicting results. Maybe this can be the subject of a future question.

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    Even though both zorro and zorra exist, in Spain the animal was (and is) mainly known as zorra. Uhms, I don't quite agree on this. We say zorro when it is masculine and zorra when it is feminine, nothing else. – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' Aug 23 '16 at 11:02
  • @fedorqui There is something else: when talking in general. Who got into the henhouse? La zorra or el zorro? – angus Aug 23 '16 at 11:45
  • Well, I agree zorra is very much used in bad contexts (the word itself being an insult) and zorro to define cleverness (zorrear). But this is not what you say in the sentence; at least, I understand your text as the animal itself being called zorra more commonly than zorro, which is not true. – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' Aug 23 '16 at 11:50
  • @fedorqui I mean, how do you call the animal in general, when you don't know its sex. – angus Aug 23 '16 at 11:55
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    @fedorqui Just to mention I get 94K for zorra here. I guess this says more about Google than about our subject. I should add a note about this conversation in the answer. – angus Aug 23 '16 at 13:05

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