Fred, our frugal monolingual friend, recently purchased a legitimate medication at a pharmacy in Tijuana, Mexico. The Spanish label indicated that he should take “una tableta cada tercer día.” Pocket dictionary in hand, Fred deduced that he should take a tablet every third day. A Spanish-speaking friend confirmed his translation.
After a month, Fred noticed no improvement and questioned the drug’s efficacy. The problem was not with the medication, it was Fred’s translation.
He took one tablet on Monday and then again on Thursday (“the third day” after Monday according to his calculations), and so forth. But the literal translation of Spanish time expressions often leads to confusion. The proper translation of “cada tercer día” to English is “every other day!” How can that be? It’s surprisingly simple: Native Spanish speakers count Monday as the first day, Tuesday as the second, and then take the tablet again on Wednesday (“the third day”).
Other Spanish time expressions also cause confusion, as any intermediate Spanish student learns. “Cada ocho días” (literally “every eight days”) means “every week” and “cada quince días” (literally “every fifteen days”) means “every two weeks.” Again, a literal translation of Spanish time expressions leads to problems.
Just imagine what would happen if John (who knows some Spanish) and Maria, who met at a singles event last Sunday, agreed to meet “de hoy en ocho” (literally “eight days from today”). If Maria shows up on Sunday and John shows up on Monday, that romance is doomed.
Just like “cada tercer día,” the origin of the confusion is the “extra day” in Spanish. Unlike the proverbial “bakers dozen” (an English expression which means 13 items), the “extra day” in Spanish does not exist. It comes from different ways of counting: for the Spanish speaker, today is day 1, tomorrow is day 2, and so forth; native English speakers generally assume that tomorrow is day 1, the day after tomorrow is day 2, etc.
Whenever you’re scheduling an appointment in Aguascalientes or taking medicine in Madrid, watch out for that extra day in Spanish!