Some time ago I posted an article by Inés Pardal published in the old Buenos Aires Herald back in the 1980s.

This is another article that I want to share with you because I find it very useful both for students and, why not, experienced translators. As I always say: there are as many translations as there are people. Everyone has a different view of the same text, so here we go.


FAILING TO GRASP IT by Inés Pardal (Focus on Spanish – Buenos Aires Herald)

Students of translation tend to find some serious obstacles, at least in the initial stages, with an English verb which should always be analyzed within the full context of the sentence. I am referring to the verb “to fail”, and before going into all its possible uses – and Spanish versions – my first tip students is: always, but most especially in this case, read the whole sentence – not the beginning of it or the subject plus the verbal form in isolation – before attempting to translate it. Only in this way the true meaning of this verb can be grasped.

The first and easiest meaning of the verb “to fail” is, of course, fracasar, ser aplazado. Here, students do not have much difficulty in finding its correct translation, as in sentences of the following type:

  • He failed in the last examination (Fue aplazado en el ultimo examen).
  • His business plans failed from the start (Sus planes comerciales fracasaron de entrada).

Semantically, the transitive use of the verb dos not change much, as in:

The examiners failed half the candidates. (Los examinadores aplazaron a la mitad de los aspirantes).

The verb “to fail”, however, cannot be interpreted in the same way as all the above examples when used in the sense of something being less than expected, or not enough. Here, the most natural translation would be fallar, admitting of other possibilities, such as, for instance, no acompañar. Consider the following examples:

  • His eyesight is beginning to fail him (Comienza a fallarle la vista).
  • He promised all his support but failed us (Nos prometió todo su apoyo, pero nos falló).
  • We meant to reach the island at noon but the wind failed us (Nuestra intención era llegar a la isla a mediodía, pero el viento no nos acompañó).


Another meaning that students do not seem to grasp so clearly happens in the construction “to fail” plus “infinitive”, meaning to neglect or overlook (i.e. fail to do something), requiring a negative construction with the main verb in Spanish (which would depend on the affirmative or negative form of the verb in the original English cases). Notice the different cases in point:

  • He failed to mention the sources of his work (No mencionó las fuentes de su trabajo).
  • She failed to remember the most important piece of evidence for the trial (No recordó la prueba circunstancial más importante para el juicio).
  • She never fails to visit her grandparents every other week (Nunca deja de visitor a sus abuelos cada dos semanas).
  • He never fails to tell the same old story at every birthday party (Nunca deja de contar la misma vieja historia en cada cumpleaños).


In reference to a quality or asset that is missing, the verb “to fail” can be translated as fallar or carecer de, as in the following sentences:

  • He is a good student but fails in perseverance (Es un buen alumno, pero le falta perseverancia).
  • His performance was fine, though somewhat failing in emotion (Su actuación fue acertada, aunque algo carente de emoción/aunque le faltó emoción).


Finally, the verb “to fail” takes the meaning of “go bankrupt” in the specific financial sense, in examples such as the following:

  • Many banks failed during the Depression (Muchos bancos quebraron durante la Depresión).

The noun “failure” poses somewhat similar difficulties to students, who tend to attach to it the general Spanish meaning of fracaso (or sometimes aplazo). This is, of course, acceptable enough in quite a few cases, such as:

  • All his endeavours ended in failure (Todos sus esfuerzos terminaron en fracas).
  • She reached success after many failures (Alcanzó el éxito tras muchos fracasos).
  • The failure of crops greatly impaired the economy of the country (El fracaso de las cosechas perjudicó en gran medida la economía del país).
  • He was a fine cartoonist, but a failure as a painter (Era un buen caricaturist, pero un fracas como pintor).

A meaning students find rather difficult to grasp is that of the noun “failure” in the sense of incapacity or inability, being unable to do what is necessary for the occasion. Consider the following sentence, none of which would admit of the translation fracaso in Spanish:

  • Failure to answer half the questions they asked him turned the witness into a suspect for the judge (Su incapacidad para contestar la mitad de las preguntas que le formularon hizo que el testigo le resultara sospechoso al juez).
  • Her failure to lose weight made her despair of all diets (La imposibilidad de perder peso la llevó a perder toda confianza en las dietas).

Finally, the noun “failure” has the specific sense of bankruptcy (quiebra or bancarrota) in financial situations:

  • The new government policy is driving many small-size businesses to failure (La nueva política gubernamental está llevando a la quiebra a muchas empresas pequeñas).

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