Katie Jacoby takes a look at the verb colaborar, which doesn’t get used in quite the same way as collaborate…
At first glance, colaborar and collaborate seem to be one of those translation pairs we like best. One means one thing, the other means the same thing, and everything’s hunky-dory, right? But then you come to Colombia and you start hearing colaborar used left and right, whereas in English it’s one of those words you hear rather infrequently. What’s going on? Are Colombians just a particularly collaborative bunch? Are they renowned for playing well with others?
In English, “collaborate” gets bandied about in power breakfasts between businessmen, trade deals between governments, and in newspaper-ese. Not being a company bigwig, politico, or journalist largely exempts me from using this word in my day-to-day parlance, though. However, in Spanish, this word comes up quite often, and Spanish speakers will often reach for colaborar when we would use a more run-of-the-mill word such as plain old “help,” “work together,” or even “volunteer.”
What does this mean for you, oh-so-diligent Spanish learner? Well, make sure you realise that it’s used much more in Spanish, meaning you should be using it more often. Don’t worry, you won’t sound excessively fancy. Whereas in English it generally means working together on some kind of intellectual effort, joining forces and brainpower to attain mutual goals, in Spanish it just means two or more people co-labouring on . . . well, just about anything.
As you can see, it’s often used with the more watered-down meaning of “to help.” To whittle it down even further, Colombians like to dispense with the prepositions. Thus, people regularly say the Spanish equivalent of things like “I collaborated her” or “Will you collaborate me?”, treating the verb as if it acted like “to help,” instead of “I collaborated with her” or “Will you collaborate with me?”.
Can I help you?
Be prepared to hear this from ten different salespeople when you walk into stores. Note that in these constructions the phrase is colaborar en, but it’s otherwise colaborar con.
Do you need help? Here, let me give you a hand.
Con mucho gusto les colaboro con las traducciones.
I’d be happy to help you with the translations.
If you’re the one in need, a smooth ¿Me podrías colaborar? will be sure to elicit the aid you’re looking for. As the word is so vague, context and body language will convey the nature of the favor you’re looking for.
Would you mind helping me out and giving it a push?
Could you hold these books for a second?
Hey blondie, can you spare a dime?
The noun form colaboración is also very common.
Cualquier colaboración será bienvenida.
We appreciate each and every donation, no matter how small.
Necesito su colaboración para poder entregar los documentos a tiempo.
I’m going to need everyone to make an extra effort so we can turn these documents in on time.
Rather un-kosher, but the word colaborar also tends to show up when, say, someone tries to dodge a ticket from a police officer.
Uy, ¿y será que usted no me puede colaborar con eso?
Isn’t there a way we could work this out between the two of us?
Or, when you’re just a few decimal points shy of passing your class and need to beg your teacher for some leniency.
Uy, profe, colabóreme ahí, por favor.
Come on, please help me out! Just this once!
You generally use colaborar with a stranger or with someone with whom you speak formally (like a boss, for example). It’s a kinder, softer way of phrasing things, and it slyly includes the listener in the action so you’re not just asking for a favor point-blank.
It’s also A-OK to just use ayudar. To use colaborar with someone you’re close to could sound a bit cold and formal, as if you’re trying to signal distance all of a sudden. But when you’re annoyed with someone you’re close to and want to let off some steam, it’s an ideal word to use.
Oiga, pero colabóreme porque llevo todo el día haciendo aseo y usted en un segundo llega con las patas cochinas a ensuciarme todo.
Hey, how about a little help now and then? Here I am cleaning all day, and then you just track mud in and make it all dirty again.
The way I see it, you could just say ayudar, but wouldn’t it be more exciting to collaborate, as if you’re working together on the problem instead of just looking for a handout?
Katie Jacoby is a Spanish-English translator and has been in Colombia for 2.5 years. Feel free to leave her a comment or ideas for future columns on her language website, vocabat.com.