Colaborar and collaborate seems to be one of those translation pairs we like best. A match made in heaven, right? One means one thing, the other means the same, and everything’s hunky-dory. And yet… I am going to be “that girl.” Yes, the one who raises her hand to throw a wrench into everyone’s complacency and whinily point out that it’s in fact a wee bit more complex than it looks, and teacher, could you please expound on the topic and then assign us homework to make sure we’ve really got it down? You’ll all thank me later.
We don’t really use the word “collaborate” all that much, do we? Oh sure, it gets bandied about in power breakfasts between businessmen, trade deals between governments (cough cough), and newspaperese. Not being a company bigwig, politico, or journalist largely exempts me from ever using this word in my day-to-day parlance, though. “Hey, want to collaborate on the math homework?” “I’d like to collaborate with your charity organization.” “I collaborated with my neighbor on washing his car.” I don’t think so.
Point being, Spanish does use this word quite often, and Spanish speakers will thus often reach for colaborar when we would use a more run-of-the-mill word such as plain old “help,” work together,” or even “volunteer.” What does this mean for you, oh-so-diligent Spanish learner? Well, make sure you realize that it’s used much more in Spanish, meaning you should be using it more often. Don’t worry; you won’t sound excessively fancy. Whereas in English it generally means working together on some kind of intellectual effort, joining forces and brainpower to attain mutual goals, in Spanish it just means two or more people co-laboring on… well, just about anything.
As you can see, it’s often used with the more watered-down meaning of “to help.” To whittle it down even further, Colombians like to dispense with all unnecessary prepositions and make it a transitive verb. Thus, people regularly say the Spanish equivalent of things like “I collaborated her” or “Will you collaborate me?”, treating the word as if it acted like “to help,” instead of “I collaborated with her” or “Will you collaborate with me?”.
¿En qué te puedo colaborar?
How can I help you? Be prepared to hear this when you walk into stores.
Do you need help? Here, let me give you a hand.
The last one is a phrase always at the tips of the tongues of the ever-accommodating Colombians. Their helpfulness is especially remarkable on the buses. If there are no seats and you have to stand and happen to be carrying something (no matter how small—in my case last Sunday, three sunflowers), the person seated next to you will almost certainly offer to lighten your load and hold the item for you. What gallantry!
I’ve also heard the phrase when someone was struggling to fit her luggage in the overhead bin on a plane—Te colaboro?—and every situation in between. If you get to your mother-in-law’s house and she’s fixing lunch, it’s the phrase you want. Your coworker’s working on a Sudoku, and you’re just itching to lend him a hand? Use it. And if you’re the one in need, a smooth Me podrías colaborar? will be sure to elicit the aid you’re looking for. Sure, you could just say ayudar, but wouldn’t it be more exciting to collaborate, as if you’re working together on the problem instead of you just looking for a handout?
(When pressed to explain to me why one would choose colaborar over ayudar, my boyfriend told me that ayudar sounds more formal around here. Any Spanish speakers from other countries care to add to that?)
RAE Diccionario panhispánico de dudas: Colaborar If you’re linguistically inclined and not cowed by references to the dative case, take a peek at this.
__________________________________________________ Non-natives, what’s your experience with this word? Had you heard it before? How have you heard it used? Where? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with?