WHISKY OR GÜISQUI? THE MEXICAN SPANISH SUBTITLES OF BLADE RUNNER 2049

Last week, a Mexican friend and I went to see Blade Runner 2049 at the Galerías Cinemex in Puerto Vallarta. For the most authentic experience, we chose to enjoy this dytopian sequel through the subtitled version in lieu of the Spanish-language dub. At one point in the film, Harrison Ford’s iconic Deckard growlingly offers newcomer protagonist Ryan Gosling a whisky. A wave of tittering washes over the audience. I manage to spot the offending article before it disappears into the ether: the English “whisky”, commonly spelled as such across the vast majority of Roman scripts, is rendered as its Spanish phonological equivilant, “güisqui”. I turn to my companion and ask why this provoked such a reaction from the crowd, and she replied that it just looks weird.

And I had to agree, even as a non-native speaker. While I don’t and have no possible means to begrudge any language the right to write words however they damn well please, I have only ever seen “whisky” written abroad, in bars, on menus, and in duty frees, in the original English. This linguistic oddity played on my mind long after the lights came up, along with other questions: Why did the subtitler choose the Spanish orthography over the English? Did they even have a say in the matter, or did a QA checker/higher-up make the final decision? Were there other factors at play? Am I overthinking all this? Is Deckard really a replicant? This article shall attempt to provide answers to these ponderings. If you find my conclusions unsatisfactory, you can look forward to the Director’s and Final cuts of this article in 10–25 years’ time.

Firstly, let us consult our good friend the RAE, the Real Academia Española , the foremost authority on all things pertaining to the Spanish language, including proper usage and etymology, the “history” of words. According to their entry on güisqui, the earliest recorded usage of this variant comes in the form of güisquería, a whisky bar/joint, in 1983. In this instance, I can see the logic in using the Spanish phonetical spelling in conjunction with -ería, such as in taqueria for a taco stand. However, for the earliest example of güisqui, written in Ana Rossetti’s 1991 novel Alevosías, it just doesn’t sit right with me. This is further compounded by the fact that after comparing the worldwide popularity of the two variations in Google Trends, whisky comes out as the clear winner with a popularity average of 46 since 2004, in comparison to interest in güisqui being so low, it registers as zero. Güisqui isn’t even popular among Spanish speakers in Guatamala, the country where this spelling is most prevelant online.

The whole thing feels like a classic case of prescriptivism versus descriptivism, that old chestnut of how a word should be used and how a word is actually used. So, the verdict seems clear. It’s an attempt to preserve the Spanish character of an Irish/Scottish spirit in a territory that overwhealmingly prefers tequila, and the audience’s confused response in the screening proves this. But please, don’t take me for some miserly pawn of the Language Police. I’m not here to chastise and shame a person off the back of a single word, and Lord knows I’ve made plenty of faux-pas in my time as a translator. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the subtitling industry as it stands today, adaptors are rarely credited for their work and large Hollywood production companies are dificult to reach for comment, especially for such a relatively minor observation as this. Unless somebody comes forward to chat, which I would love, it looks like this shall forever remain a mystery.

I wondered if anyone else was as obsessive as me and had commented on the great whisky-güisqui debacle online, so I proceeded to type Blade Runner 2049 + Whisky into Google. The plot thickened. The reason Ford offers Gosling a whisky is because director Denis Villeneuve is releasing a limited-edition Johnnie Walker Blade Runner scotch as a movie tie-in. This brand was also seen in the 1982 original, being Deckard’s tipple of choice. Product placement strikes again! Was it all just SEO noddling to promote this bottle to the Central American market? While I would love to stick a fork in this theory and call it a day, it doesn’t seem likely as this special-edition blend isn’t even being sold in Mexico. And as further insult to injury, the entire Mexican JW site has chosen to label their beverages as “whisky”.

In conclusion, if you’re reading this, thanks for sticking around to the end to listen to my unhinged rant over a single word. If you liked this suspensful yarn, then perhaps you would also enjoy Blade Runner 2049, now available in cinemas worldwide. That’s right, this whole article was just a concealed publicity stunt to promote the movie and push up disappointing US box office numbers. I bet you feel rather silly now.