About vanilla beans

Today’s post is about a question I stumbled upon the other day:

Somebody told me that saying “frijoles de vainilla” is wrong. Is it? If so, why?

That’s right, saying “frijoles de vainilla” is incorrect. As for the reason, the quick answer is: because ‘beans’ and “frijoles” are not always the same thing.

Now the more elaborate answer: when somebody says ‘vanilla beans’, he’s referring to the seeds of the vanilla plant, so the way to say that in Spanish would be “semillas de vainilla” or “granos de vainilla”. The word “frijol” in Spanish refers to the seeds of plants from the genus Phaseolus.

The idea of adding a qualifier to the word “frijoles” isn’t totally crazy, though. There is at least one case I can think of where that’s exactly the structure used: “frijoles de soya”, which is ‘soybeans’ in Spanish.

It’s also important to notice that there are other ways to refer to “frijoles” in the Spanish-speaking world, and their use (or lack thereof) varies from region to region. In some places it’s more common to use the words “habichuelas”, “judías” and “porotos”. You can learn more about that here.

As a short side note, I want to add that this is a pretty good example of the reasons I think automated translation systems are never going to be as good as they are depicted in science fiction. After all, the proper way to translate something is to understand its meaning in the source language (which may depend heavily on context), and then express the same idea in the target language. It’s also the reason word-for-word translation is not a good habit to acquire as a student, and the reason I’m not so fond of multi-lingual dictionaries. But these ideas deserve to be discussed in their own blog posts.

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