Subtleties of Romanian: The Not-so-solemn Distinction Between “Mantuire” and “Mantuiala”

The other day I saw an ad for a subtitling job. It was in one of my language combinations, (English into Romanian), and it was for religious content. As I have successfully translated religious and philosophical essays before, I felt it was right up my alley and decided to apply. 

While waiting to receive additional details about the job, I began browsing the online press, as I do every morning, and my eyes fell on an article deploring the state of some of Romania’s infrastructure. One of the words the author had chosen for the headline that sprawled across my screen gave me a jolt: it was “mântuiala“. This is eerily similar to “mântuire“, which, of course means “salvation” in the religious Christian sense. “Mântuiala“, on the other hand, is the Romanian equivalent of the German “Pfuscharbeit“, a botched job, a slipshod piece of work.


This is peculiar, I thought, and was immediately gripped by linguistic curiosity. How could something so sacred as redemption, so complete as the deliverance from all sin, something leading to eternal life and a state of perpetual bliss be so closely related with a term used to signify a job perfunctorily done, a slap-dash performance? What on Earth could salvation and shoddiness have in common? So I did some digging.


As it turns out, they both stem from the verb “mântui“, which at different times has meant anything from saving, delivering or freeing someone from danger, suffering and sin (healing, escaping), to finishing up, ending something. While the suffix “ire” simply indicates the correct form for the long infinitive of the verb (“a mântui – mântuire“), the suffix “ială” nominalizes the verb by adding (I believe) a slightly disparaging nuance. 


It appears that – while the Bible propagated and reinforced the first meaning in literate circles – in the countryside, oral tradition also preserved the other sense of the verb, which is to finish something, be done with it and free from it. And this is where our culprit “mântuială” comes into play. In rural circles, “a mântui” was used to mean “finish already so we can forget about it”.

The focus was on getting the job done quickly, the main goal being to check it off your list. Quality was of little consequence. It was meant to look complete, without necessarily being complete. As long as it appears that I have finished, I am now free to concern myself with other things. This harks back to the Romanian cultural trait of short-term orientation and a dislike for what is perceived as excessive, inflexible rigor.

Isn’t this fascinating? Everywhere around the world, important cultural traits and things that are relevant to people’s lives get coded in language and deposit a wealth of understanding. In the words of Roman Jakobson, language is at least as much about what it must convey, as it is about what it may convey.


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