Why Translate 'For Your Country' Using 'Por'?

'Por' Often Puts Focus on Motive

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy. Whitehouse.gov

Question: I am writing to you because I have a doubt about a recent Word of the Day. You translate the famous quote of President John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," as "Pregunten no lo que su país puede hacer por ustedes, pregunten, más bien, qué pueden hacer ustedes por su país. Perhaps I'm missing something here, but doesn't "to do for" translate as "hacer para"?

Answer: First of all, I won't take credit for the translation, and indeed I might have translated the sentence differently. But por is nearly always used in translating these famous inaugural words.

This is one of those rare cases where you can translate "for" as either para or por and be grammatically correct. But being grammatically correct doesn't mean that the understood meaning would be correct. In fact, "hacer para su país" might be understood to mean "to make for your country." There are good reasons why por is the preferred translation in this case.

Let's look at two ways we could understand a simplified variation of this sentence. You could translate "Do it for your country" in at least two ways:

  • Hazlo para tu país.
  • Hazlo por tu país.

Yes, they both can mean "Do it for your country." But they also could be more precisely translated like this, respectively:

  • Do it to give it to your country.
  • Do it because of your country.

Is there are practical difference between the two commands? In most contexts, probably not. But the second one suggests patriotism as a motivation, and it was that attitude that Kennedy seemed to be aspiring to. The difference between por and para is frequently the difference between motivation and result.

It is for similar reasons that you'll hear statements such as "Hazlo por mí" (Do it for me) and "Lo hago por ti" (I do it for you) much more often than "Hazlo para mí" (Do/make it for me) and "Lo hago para ti" (I do/make it for you). All these sentences are grammatically correct, and you'll hear native speakers use all of them. But por suggests a motivation (in these sentences, presumably that's love or concern) that is absent from the sentences using para.

One rule of thumb is that if you're translating the English "for" to Spanish, and you can substitute "because of," in most cases you should use por and very seldom para. Here are some examples that follow the pattern of the sentence in Kennedy's speech:

  • Yo lloraba mucho por mi madre. I cried a lot for (because of) my mother.
  • Él ganó por mí. He won for (because of) me.
  • Lo que tenemos es una batalla por la nación. What we have is a battle for (because of) the nation.
  • Lucharon por la Madre Patria. They fought for (because of) the Motherland.

The fine distinctions between por and para can be especially challenging for native English speakers. As you become more familiar with the language, however, you eventually learn which preposition "sounds right." And while it may be difficult to formulate a clear rule, it eventually will "sound right" that por works best in translating phrases such as "for your country."