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Yabla's Top 10 Spanish Idioms and Their (Very Different!) English Equivalents

Sometimes, various languages use very different idiomatic expressions to communicate exactly the same idea! As an example, the English expression "It was the straw that broke the camel's back," which refers to the last of a series of unpleasant events that causes some more extreme consequence, is conveyed with a Spanish saying with a totally different literal meaning: Fue la gota que derramó el vaso (It was the drop that spilled the glass). The purpose of today's lesson will be to bring to your attention several such idioms.

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Translating Idiomatic Expressions 

As you may have noticed, Yabla sometimes includes brackets that indicate what a word or phrase means "literally" as opposed to how it has been translated. This is because, while we want our subscribers to learn the literal meaning of the words they are reading, we also want them to glean the intention behind a particular expression (which is more obvious in some cases than in others) and/or depict what a native English speaker would say in the same context. With that in mind, let's take a look at Yabla's Top Ten Spanish Idioms from our Yabla Spanish library.

 

1.  La práctica hace al maestro

This Spanish equivalent of "Practice makes perfect" literally means "Practice makes the master":

 

Es así de sencillo: La práctica hace al maestro.

It's that simple: Practice makes perfect [literally "Practice makes the master"].

Caption 7, Los Años Maravillosos Capítulo 13 - Part 4

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2. Tomarle el pelo (a alguien)

Who knows why the concept of jokingly deceiving someone is expressed with "to take" or "pull one's hair" in one language and "to pull one's leg" in another? 

 

¿Qué tango, me estás tomando el pelo?

What tango, are you pulling my leg [literally: Are you pulling my hair]?

Caption 46, Muñeca Brava 30 Revelaciones - Part 3

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3. Andarse por las ramas

The Spanish idiom andarse por las ramas and its variants mean "to walk around/between the branches" and have the same meaning as the English saying "to beat around the bush," or avoid getting straight to the point. 

 

Mi abu también dice que yo ando entre las ramas,

My grams also says that I beat around the bush [literally "I walk between the branches"],

Caption 20, X6 1 - La banda - Part 1

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4. Al que madruga Dios lo ayuda

Literally translated, Al que madruga Dios lo ayuda means "God helps he who gets up early." Meant to tout the benefits of early rising, similar sayings in English include "The early bird catches the worm" and "Early to bed, early to rise makes the man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

 

Además, yo siempre madrugo, ¿vio? Porque, "Al que madruga..." "Dios lo ayuda".

Besides, I always get up early, you know? Because, "The early bird..." "Catches the worm" [literally "God helps him"].

Captions 33-34, Muñeca Brava 47 Esperanzas - Part 6

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5. Hablando del rey Roma

Spanish-speakers use the expression "Speaking of the King of Rome" instead of "Speak of the devil" in circumstances where one is, for example, talking about someone when that person appears.

 

Miren, hablando del Rey de Roma.

Look, speak of the devil [literally "the King of Rome"].

Caption 60, Confidencial: El rey de la estafa Capítulo 5 - Part 4

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For insight into even more idiomatic expressions from the intriguing Colombian series Confidencial: El rey de la estafa (Confidential: The King of Cons), we recommend the video Carlos Comenta- Confidencial- Vocabulario y expresiones (Carlos Comments- Confidential- Vocabulary and Expressions). 

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6. Hacer el oso

Word for word, hacer el oso means "to play" or "act like a bear"! However, this oft-used Spanish expresion, employed frequently in countries like Colombia, is used to say that someone is "making a fool of him or herself."

 

Hermano, deje de hacer el oso.

Brother, stop making a fool of yourself [literally "playing the bear"].

Caption 40, Confidencial: El rey de la estafa Capítulo 4 - Part 1

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To learn more such "Colombianisms," we suggest the lesson Colombian Slang: 100 Words and Phrases to Sound like a True Colombian.

 

7. Importar un pepino 

The word "darn" in English is an exclamation of disappointment, for example, when something goes wrong, while "not to give a darn" means "not to care." The Spanish equivalent importar un pepino, on the other hand, translates to "mattering as much as a cucumber" to the party in question:

 

¡Y el peor de todos es Pepino Pérez, que le importa un pepino todo!

And the worst of all of them is Pepino Pérez, who doesn't give a darn [literally "a cucumber"] about anything!

Caption 14, Kikirikí Agua - Part 1

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8. Con las manos en la masa

The image of getting "caught with one's hands in the dough," as the expression (atrapado) con las manos en la masa describes, seems like the perfect way to convey the notion of "getting caught red-handed" (in the act of doing some bad deed). 

 

Con las manos en la masa atraparon al ladrón

Red-handed [literally "with his hands in the dough"], they caught the thief

Caption 1, Eljuri Un fósforo

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9. La mosquita muerta

The expression la mosquita muerta, or "small dead fly," describes a person who appears nice or innocent but is actually evil or untrustworthy. Similar English expressions include "a wolf in sheep's clothing" or a "snake in the grass."

 

Como se equivocó la mosquita muerta esa.

What a big mistake that wolf in sheep's clothing [literally "small dead fly"] made.

Caption 11, Tu Voz Estéreo Embalsamado - Part 4

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10. Listo el pollo, pelada la gallina

Although the literal meaning of the Argentinian saying Listo el pollo, pelada la gallina is "The chicken's ready, the hen's plucked," it is used to announce the completion of some goal or task, making it similar to the more straightforward English expression, "Mission accomplished." Here, Mili from the popular Argentinian soap opera Muñeca Brava utters the second part of this expression to make this point:

 

¡Listo el último! -Va, ¡pelada la gallina!

The last one's ready! -Come on, mission accomplished [literally "the hen's plucked"]!

Caption 73, Muñeca Brava 47 Esperanzas - Part 3

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If Argentinean Spanish particularly interests you, you might read this lesson on the Top Ten Argentinian Slang Words You Need to Know

 

We hope you've enjoyed this lesson on Yabla's Top Ten Spanish Idioms and their English equivalents. If you are interested in learning more about what goes into translating idiomatic expressions and more, we recommend the lesson The Art of Translation, and don't forget to leave us your suggestions and comments

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The Art of Translation

Recently, one of our subscribers wrote into us, alarmed by the following translation:

 

Parece mentira

It's unbelievable

Caption 7, Café Tacuba - Mediodía

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As the literal meaning of Parece mentira is "It seems like a lie," he didn't understand how the translators at Yabla could have so terribly missed the mark. Long story short, translation is not always literal, and there are many occasions on which the same word, expression, or text could be translated in more than one fashion. There are many factors that come into play at the moment of translating, including idiomatic speech, differences in dialects, the format or genre of the translation, and even the audience for which it is intended.

 

Since much of the art of translation involves making actual choices, rather than simply translating each word literally, the audience for a translation and its intended purpose come into play. For example, someone might hire a translator to translate a legally binding contract into layperson's language if the purpose of the translation is simply for that client to be able to understand what is being said in everyday terms. On the other hand, were that same contract to be presented by a lawyer at a trial in a Spanish-speaking country, the translation would need to match the high register of the original document and contain exact equivalents of its complex legal terminology. This is further complicated by the fact that sometimes the laws of one country are so different from another's that there simply is no equivalent terminology. 

 

On the other hand, literary translation can be quite complicated with genres like poetry or children's stories that employ rhyme. The translator is then faced with the choice between translating the literal meaning of the poem and completely losing this literary element or employing rhyme while inevitably altering the meaning (as little as possible, of course!). Again, either one of these translation styles could be legitimate, depending upon the audience for the translation and/or what the translator considers more important in terms of maintaining the essence of the original literature. 

 

In the case of Yabla, our audience consists of language learners. As our goal is to translate in a way that facilitates language learning, we are basically left with two choices in our aforementioned example: to literally translate the phrase, Parece mentira, as "It seems like a lie," which sounds a bit awkward in English, or to translate the actual meaning of this idiomatic expression, which is indeed utilized to convey the idea that something is "unbelievable," "incredible," or "hard to believe." Over time, Yabla has transitioned from more literal translation to a style that expresses actual meaning and/or the way in which a native speaker would express him or herself whenever possible

 

To illustrate a very simple example, the concept of "black and white" (movies, for example) in Spanish is expressed in reverse order as blanco y negro. While in the past, Yabla may have opted to translate this as “white and black” in order not to confuse learners (perhaps leading them to believe that Yabla's translators need to brush up on their colors!), these days, we would most likely go with the more common manner of expressing this in English. This can be seen in the following clip. 

 

Son los vari blanco y negro.

They are the black and white ruffed lemurs.

Caption 34, Animales en familia - Un día en Bioparc: Lémures

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Of course, as this is also a proper name, the translator should always choose the real name by which something is known in the target language (in our case, English) rather than the source language (Spanish), even when the literal translation would be completely different:

 

Bueno, en las costa se pueden, bueno, observar pingüinos, lobos marinos.

Well, at the shore you can see penguins, sea lions (literally "sea wolves").

Caption 49, Buenos Aires - Heladería Cumelen

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Interestingly, the very same animal, the sea lion, is literally referred to as a "sea wolf" in Spanish. However, translating it in this matter would only serve to confuse English speakers, perhaps causing them to wonder whether the speaker could be referring to some alternative species (or maybe a fantastical creature!). Whenever possible, Yabla also employs brackets to indicate the literal translation in such cases. 

 

To further demonstrate the complex nature of translation, let's examine a few additional examples:

 

¿Qué te parece San Sebastián, Matías?

What do you think of San Sebastian (literally, "How does San Sebastian seem to you"), Matias?

Caption 29, Clase Aula Azul - El verbo parecer

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The literal translation of ¿Qué te parece San Sebastián? is "How does San Sebastian seem to you?" However, although there is nothing grammatically incorrect about that English sentence, the translator must again put him or herself in the shoes of a speaker who, for example, is inquiring about the visitor to a particular city's opinion of it. In this case, "What do you think of San Sebastian?" would be a much more common utterance. Once again, since the intention of this video is to teach Yabla students grammar, you will note that the literal translation has additionally been provided in brackets. 

 

Let's take a look at an example in which two completely different idioms are used to express the same idea in Spanish vs. English:

 

El arreglo, un ojo de la cara.

The repair, an arm and a leg (literally "an eye off my face").

Caption 19, Confidencial: Asesino al Volante - Capítulo 1

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Amusingly, to say something costs "an eye off my face" has the same meaning as the English expression, "to cost an arm and a leg," and the translator should thus choose the equivalent idiomatic expression in the target language. 

 

Let's look at one last example:

 

Sí, gorda, ya lo sé.

Yes, honey, I know that already.

Caption 32, Muñeca Brava - 45 El secreto

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As gorda literally means "fatty," the translation "honey" might initially seem off. However, terms such as gordo/a ("fatty"), flaco/a ("skinny'), and negro/negra ("blackie") are frequently employed in many Spanish-speaking countries (regardless of whether the person actually has these physical characteristics!) as terms of endearment equivalent to such English words as "dear," "honey," or "sweetie." This additionally demonstrates how a term deemed perfectly acceptable in one country could, in another, be misunderstood at best and offensive at worst. This becomes extremely important when translating, for example, advertisements targeted at specific audiences. 

 

That's all for today. We hope that these examples have shed some light on a few of the countless challenges and choices that translators face regularly, and don't forget to  leave us your comments and suggestions

 

 

 

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