The recent postings about subir ‘to rise, go up’ and subibaja ‘seesaw’ lead up to today’s about Spanish vaivén, which has the same structure as subibaja: two third-person-singular, present-tense verbs linked by the conjunction y ‘and’ (which I discussed in the entries for y and for y e i ). In the case of vaivén, the two conjugated verbs are va ‘it goes’ and viene ‘it comes [back].’ Like subibaja, vaivén functions as a noun, but it has more meanings than subibaja.
Spanish vaivén can mean: ‘a back-and-forth or alternating movement; a rocking, swaying, swinging, lurching; fluctuation; vibration; unsteadiness; inconstancy; change of fortune; risk, danger.’ The eighth edition of the HarperCollins Spanish Unabridged Dictionary even has ‘to-ing and fro-ing,’ which, to my surprise, does appear in some English dictionaries. HarperCollins (are they short on hyphens and spaces over there?) explains the plural vaivenes, which it says is equivalent to Spanish altibajos, as ‘ups and downs.’ Tomísimo translates pendiente de vaivén as ‘switchback,’ which is a road that cuts back and forth as it goes up the slope of a hill or mountain, and it translates the phrase sierra de vaivén as ‘jig-saw.’ Based on that, the transitive verb vaivenear, now largely fallen out of use, means ‘to move back and forth over.’ The verb is worth reviving, and it appeared recently in a translation of a portion of Derek Walcott’s Omeros presented by Juan Rayos. The original, which describes the motion of a frigate-bird, is
Then the canoes were galleys
over which a frigate sawed its scythed wings slowly,
and the Spanish translation reads
Luego las canoas eran galeras
sobre las que un rabihorcado vaiveneaba la lenta sierra de sus alas falcadas.
© 2010 Steven Schwartzman