In the third sentence of the novel The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, the author states:
But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. (Hemingway, 1)
Salao comes from the Spanish word salado, meaning salty. This word is recognized as having the meaning of the worst luck. The fisherman is regarded as having unbearably bad luck by not catching any fish lately and Manolin's parents refuse to let the son fish with the old man. From this very word, foreshadowing enters the picture as readers become to realize that the fisherman will not catch any fish, and if he does, he will somehow lose the fish in one way or another, and that is precisely what happens in the novel.
To lend credibility and reliability to the narrator, along with authenticity, Spanish words are not translated to give the book a more Spanish feel to it and to give the book a more cultural bearing to rest on, since the setting is in a a Spanish, or Latin American, fishing village.
The word is Spanish slang, meaning, in the context of Cuban Spanish, someone who is unlucky, or, perhaps, jinxed. (It is interesting to note than in Spain, the word means something completely different: someone who is funny, or a jokester.) Hemingway defines "salao" as "the worst form of unlucky," so perhaps he does not translate the word because there is no real equivalent in English. At any rate, the idea of "luck" has a weight and importance in Santiago's Cuba that it lacks in the United States.
In a larger sense, the word introduces and encapsulates a major theme in the book, which is "luck" as an expression of the unpredictability and indifference of the universe. Santiago's story is one of tremendous courage and perseverance in the face of misfortune, whether it comes in the form of no fish or too much fish. I think by the time we've gotten through the book, we may come to understand "salao" in the continental sense, as a jokester whose pranks Santiago must overcome by hard work, self-reliance, and, ultimately, a kind of faith.