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I found this sentence in "Las Uvas de la Ira" (Spanish translation of "The Grapes of Wrath"):

Los humorísticos y viejos ojos...

I would have expected "the old humorous old eyes" to have been translated as Los ojos viejos y humorísticos instead.

Why do the adjectives precede the noun in this case? Is there a rule for when this is acceptable/required to reverse the normal Spanish noun/adjective construct?

2 Answers 2

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Yes.

Certain adjectives like the unstressed possessives must go in front (mi, tu, su, etc). Quantity indicators also normally go in front (mucho, poco) as well as numbers, both cardinal and ordinal, and the adjectives bueno and malo. You may occasionally find them after nouns but it's less common.

For other adjectives, placement in front tends to shift meaning from mere description to making the adjective a bit more inherent/intrinsic/defining to the noun. For example, el gato negro is a cat who happens to be black. El negro gato is a cat whose principle and/or defining characteristic is its blackness.

In poetry, placement will often be quite arbitrary to better fit the meter/rhyme.

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This depends on the function of the adjective. If it is qualifying the name (qualifier), then it must come after the name. E.g. el coche blanco means that, of all the cars, you are talking about the white one.

On the other hand, if you are using the adjective to remark some characteristic (epithete), it can go after or before the noun. In your example, it is clear which eyes you are referring to without the need for adjectives; you are talking about the eyes of the turtle. You only use the adjectives to remark some of their properties which may be important or interesting for what you are saying about them. In this case, the adjectives can be used before the noun.

Nevertheless, in Spanish is not so usual to put more than one adjective in front of a name. In this case, Los viejos ojos humorísticos would sound more natural, in my opinion.

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  • "Los humoristicos y viejos ojos" has not been written with the intention to sound natural. It has a sligthly weird order on purpose.
    – Pablo
    Jul 2, 2014 at 11:05
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    @Pablo This is not so in the English original. The old humorous eyes does not sound unusual or weird at all to me.
    – Gorpik
    Jul 2, 2014 at 12:42
  • Changing the order of the adjectives is something done often in poetry. I suppose that the transaltor felt that giving it a small poetry touch was a better translation. I personally agree.
    – Pablo
    Jul 2, 2014 at 13:02

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