I was just reading an article from El Tiempo, when a certain word jumped out at me. The story is about an American ex-soldier, Kevin Scott Sutay, who, against many warnings, ventured into a part of the Colombian jungle rife with FARC guerrillas and was almost instantly captured by them. Here’s the sentence that made me cock an eyebrow.
Sutay, un hombre desgarbado, con alrededor de 20 años y con corte estilo militar. . .
Un hombre desgarbado? What does that have to do with anything? I remember learning desgarbado from the Colombian TV show Yo soy Betty la fea. It means ungraceful, ungainly, awkward. This could be because someone’s lanky, gangly, and gawky (such great words) or because they’re a terrible dresser and lack elegance. WordReference even lists oaf and klutz as possible translations. As you can see, it’s not a compliment to be called desgarbado. The word comes from garbo, which is elegance, grace, poise. Just think of Greta Garbo, and you’re good. Calling (or thinking) someone desgarbado is like saying, You’re no Greta Garbo.
No matter how hard I try, I just can’t find a way to make that sentence (never mind the translation) sound good. Or even appropriate.
Sutay, a lanky man . . . never should have been in that jungle in the first place.
Sutay, a klutzy type . . . is now a pawn in the FARC’s hypocritical game.
Sutay, a slovenly dresser. . . is a former U.S. Marine.
Well, I just noticed that the article was written by Reuters, so I set out to find the original. I finally tracked it down, and here’s the line.
Sutay, a lanky man in his 20s with a military-style crew cut . . .
I see that many people online insist that desgarbado = lanky, but I’m not feeling it. Desgarbado is decidedly negative, and lanky isn’t. The first adjective that comes to my mind for lanky is espigado, which literally is tall and reedy like a sprig of wheat. Maybe I’m dead wrong (there’s always a good chance of it), but I still don’t think desgarbado is a good fit there, at least not to my delicate ears. Of course, I don’t have an insider’s sensibilities with Spanish. What do you think?
Also, why is it telling us that he’s lanky, anyway? As if it would make any difference if he were heavy-set or buff or with an average build instead. All the physical description in the world wouldn’t overshadow the fact that he was clearly operating on precious few brain cells when he decided to go into that jungle. If there’s one thing here that is inarguably lanky, it’s this guy’s judgment.