‘Compromise’ — a simple word without a Spanish translation

The concept seems largely unknown in Hispanic culture, but Spain’s politicians would do well to learn its meaning

“The intellect is always fooled by the heart”

François de la Rochefoucauld

Three years ago I was in Cairo, having a conversation with an Egyptian feminist. With her high heels, tight-fitting white skirt, slightly visible cleavage and uncovered hair and knees, she was a flesh-and-blood challenge to the dark puritanism that has made such a mark on her country and on the rest of the Muslim world in recent years.

Her name was Iman Bibars, and she comes to mind today not so much because of her exuberant looks, but because of something she told me – something I remembered after reading a couple of articles in EL PAÍS yesterday that made me think that Spain has been granted a historical opportunity for a revolution whose impact would be felt not just in the Iberian peninsula, but in all Spanish-speaking countries.

Spain’s closed Catholicism was in contrast to that of other European countries that were more open to the influence of Newton, Darwin and Voltaire

The articles discussed the current paralysis in Spanish politics. The first one covered the results of an opinion poll showing that 61% of Spaniards want the political parties – none of which obtained a clear majority at the general election last month – to “pactar” (notice the word), or in other words to reach an agreement to form a government. The second piece was more analytic and noted that it has been four years since Spaniards began repeatedly and massively expressing their desire for greater negotiation and more “pactos” (again that word).

What Iman, who spoke English as though it were her native tongue, told me, was that she was quite taken by a word that has no translation in Arabic. Astonished, as though I were having a sudden moment of revelation, I exclaimed: “But it doesn’t have a Spanish translation, either!” “Aha,” she said with a smile. “Perhaps that’s our fault, then.” “Maybe so,” I agreed, thinking about the nearly 800 years of “Moorish” rule on the Iberian peninsula.

The English word, which is a verb and a noun at the same time, is “compromise.” The only Spanish word whose meaning comes close is, in fact, “pacto” or “pactar.” But it is not quite the same. “Compromise” is more subtle, it is broader in scope; it involves a generous, practical attitude to life that may help explain why democratic governments have worked more efficiently, solidly and for longer periods of time in Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada than in Spain, Mexico, Venezuela or Argentina.

Let us look at the definition of “pactar” provided by the Royal Spanish Academy: “An agreement on something between two or more parties, who are mutually bound to observe it.” Then let us see the definition of “compromise” in the Oxford English Dictionary: “An agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.”

The fact that there is no Spanish word with the equivalent meaning indicates that the concept is unknown in Hispanic culture, or at least that it has not made many inroads. I do not know the exact reasons for this, but despite not being a historian, and suicidally aware that the world of academia might descend on me for this, I will posit a partial theory.

Just as there are significant variations in the interpretation of Islam depending on the country where it is practiced, for many centuries there were also great differences in the way Catholicism was experienced in Western Europe. From the time that the last sultan of Granada was expelled in January 1492 to the end of the Franco regime – yes, I know, with all its nuances and a civil war in between – the version of Catholicism that prevailed in Spain was closer to the obscurantist Wahhabi version of Islam on display in modern-day Saudi Arabia than to the variants we see in Morocco, Turkey or Indonesia.

Spain’s closed Catholicism was in contrast to that of other European countries that were more open to the influence of Newton, Darwin and Voltaire (in French, the term “compromis” has the same meaning as the English “compromise”: “Concession réciproque,” according to the dictionary.)

My point is that the long-lived central role of the Spanish Catholic Church in the intellectual and spiritual lives of Spaniards has left, as a side effect, an absolutist way of thinking that does not leave room for the concept of compromise. It doesn’t matter whether people are left-wing or right-wing, pro-Church or anti-Church. It is all the same, whether the topic of debate is politics, work or soccer. A Manchester United supporter will always be a lot more willing than a Barcelona fan to admit that the team of his oldest enemy, Liverpool or Real Madrid, played a good game.

Spanish politicians are going to have to open up to the idea that if you yield and I yield we can all end up winning

I will always remember a conversation I had about 10 years ago with a Madrid man about a group of co-workers in management positions at the company where he worked. “I can’t stand them,” he told me. “They’re always wanting to pactar. They just have no principles, no principles, dammit!”

I would never presume to be in possession of the precise formula that is required for the present situation, but it is clear that if Spain’s political parties want to satisfy the apparent desire expressed by a majority of citizens for an agreement leading to the formation of a government, thus averting new elections in the short run, they will have to relax the principles that they so obstinately cling to, for reasons of nature and history, and opt instead for the kind of pragmatism that is implied in that word that does not exist in their language.

By assimilating the healthy philosophy contained in the concept of compromise, they will have to be less utopian and more down-to-earth, less vain and more flexible, less in possession of the truth and more humble. They will have to think less like priests, whose focus is on the afterlife, and more like the secular children of Adam and Eve – or of chimpanzees, depending on preferences – who are condemned to share their brief stay on this earth with other individuals whose depths are indecipherable (and that is without even going into the complexities of a social collective); a world where, outside of mathematics, there are no eternal truths and no ideological solutions that can guarantee general wellbeing.

They are going to have to break new ground and open up to the idea – profoundly revolutionary in the Hispanic world – that if you yield and I yield we can all end up winning. And while they’re at it, they can add a new word to the Spanish lexicon.

English version by Susana Urra.