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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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More Spanish Expressions

It's time to learn more Spanish expressions. If you have a subscription, you can click on the link below each example to learn more about the context in which they are used.
 

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Salirse con la suya literally means "to get one's (own) way." See how the verb salir (to go) uses the reflexive pronoun se before the verb when it's conjugated (in this case in the subjunctive mood because it's used to express something that is not a fact, but a determination):

 

Yo no pienso dejar que esa sifrina se salga con la suya.

I don't plan to let that snob get away with it.

Caption 79, NPS No puede ser - 1 - El concurso

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Talking about determination, the phrase empeñarse en algo means to be set on doing something, to insist, to be determined:
 

Él está empeñado en venderos algo.

He's determined to sell to you something.

Caption 17, 75 minutos - Gangas para ricos

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As you can see, when you are saying that someone is determined to do something, you are stating a fact, so you use the verb estar (to be) in the indicative mood. However, this expression can also be used in a similar way to the expression salirse con la suya, that is, using the reflexive verb empeñarse (to insist on) plus a phrase that expresses a desire or purpose in the subjunctive mood:
 
María se empeña en que yo aprenda español.
María insists that I learn Spanish.
 
But if the subjunctive is still difficult for you, you can also use this expression to express your own or other people's determination by combining the reflexive verb empeñarse with a phrase that uses a verb in the indicative:
 
Mi mamá se empeña en ir al teatro.
My mom insists on going to the theater.
 
Yo me empeño en estudiar.
I'm determined to study.
 
When someone is determined to do something, it usually follows that the person will take some action, right? Well, in Spanish there's also an idiomatic expression for that:
 

Por favor, por favor, Padre Manuel.

Please, please, Father Manuel.

Usted tiene que tomar cartas en ese asunto.

You have to take action in that matter.

Captions 12-13, Muñeca Brava - 30 Revelaciones

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Maybe the origin of this phrase goes back to a time when many matters were solved by writing cartas (letters)! Surely, it took a long time to solve problems back then. Which reminds us of another expression that calls for patience and perseverance: a la larga (in the long run):
 

Todo se arreglará a la larga

Everything will be ok in the long run

Caption 23, Club de las ideas - La motivación

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Some people, however, have no patience, and such delays would just drive them crazy. For that, there's a Spanish expression that is quite illustrative: sacar de las casillas (to drive someone crazy). The word casilla is used to designate, among other things, each of the squares found in a chess board or other type of board game. A loosely literal translation of the phrase could then be: "to get someone out of their place."

 

¡Sí, una que me saca de las casillas! -¿Cómo? ¿Cómo?

Yes, one that infuriates me! -What? What?

Caption 61, Muñeca Brava - 8 Trampas

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Expressions

To Be Honest & Avoid Being a Chump

Let's keep learning interesting Spanish expressions. Our always-growing catalog of Spanish videos contains many examples that will definitely help you boost your conversational skills.
 

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Mili, the main character of the Argentinian telenovela Muñeca Brava, continues to be a never-ending source of colloquial expressions. In the following example, she gives us the Spanish equivalent of the expression "to call a spade a spade," which in Spanish has a very eucharistical nature:

 

¡Al pan, pan y al vino, vino, doña!

To call a spade a spade, Ma'am!

[literally: to call bread "bread" and wine "wine"]

Caption 55, Muñeca Brava - 8 Trampas

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Indeed, Mili siempre llama al pan, pan y al vino, vino (Mili always calls a spade a spade), because Mili es muy directa para hablar (Mili is very direct). Mexican folks would also say that Mili es muy claridosa (Mili is very plain-spoken, or blunt), a word that comes from the adjective claro (clear). Wouldn't you agree with Spanish speakers who would also say that Mili is not the type of person that esquiva el bulto (literally, “goes around the bundle”)? Depending on the context, this expression may be translated as "to beat around the bush" or even "to dodge the bullet”:

 

Al contrario,

On the contrary,

vos estás esquivando acá el bulto para no pagarme a mí...

you are trying to dodge the bullet to avoid paying me...

Caption 49, Muñeca Brava - 18 - La Apuesta

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Also equivalent are the Spanish expressions sacar la vuelta (to go around, to evade), hacer rodeos or andar con rodeos (to make detours):

Dime la verdad, no le saques la vuelta
Tell me the truth, don't beat around the bush.
 
Desde entonces, Lucía siempre me saca la vuelta.
Since then, Lucia is always evading me.

 

Está bien, Sor Cachetes, déjese de rodeos. Dígame,

All right, Sister Cheeks, stop beating about the bush. Tell me,

¿qué, qué es lo que pasa?

what, what's going on?

Captions 44-45, Muñeca Brava 18 - La Apuesta

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Quiero andarme sin rodeos

I want to go without detours [to be straightfoward]

Confesarte que una tarde empecé a morir por ti

To confess to you that one afternoon I began to die for you

Captions 16-17, Amaia Montero - Quiero Ser

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Going back to Mili's personality, another useful expression to describe the way she speaks would be ir al grano (to get straight to the point). When someone is wasting your time with a long chat, you can say ¡Ve al grano! (Get to the point!) Of course, you can also do as Mili does and omit the verb ir (to go):

 

Bueno, vamos.

Well, let's go.

Al grano que quiero dormir mi siesta.

Straight to the point as I want to take my nap.

¿Qué venías a pedirme?

What did you want to ask me?

Captions 66-68, Muñeca Brava - 41 La Fiesta

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Another similar expression is ir al meollo del asunto or ir al meollo de la cuestión, which means “to get to the nub of the issue,” “to get straight to the point.” The word meollo is definitely a keeper. It means the central core of something, and comes from the latin medulla (marrow):

 

Bueno, el meollo de la cuestión.

Well, the point of the matter.

Caption 11, Muñeca Brava - 18 - La Apuesta

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There are many virtues and benefits associated with being as direct as Mili is. People like her are usually honest and not prone to telling lies or cheating. Speaking of which, you may have heard the expression dar gato por liebre (to try to deceive; literally, “to give a cat instead of a hare”). A somewhat close English expression is “to be sold a pig in a poke,” which is not very common, anyway.

 

Gato por liebre.

A cat for a hare [you think you're getting one thing but it's another].

-Exactamente.

-Exactly.

Caption 50, Factor Fobia Cucarachas

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This expression is very common in Spanish, so you may want a more contextualized example:
 
No quieras darme gato por liebre / Don't try to deceive me.
 

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Another similar expression is tomar el pelo (to try to trick someone).The expression dar gato por liebre would be more suitable in the context of a real scam someone is trying to pull. On the other hand, tomar el pelo is more likely used in the context of a joke. In that sense it's similar to the English expression "to pull someone's leg." Here are two examples:

 

¿Ustedes dos me están tomando el pelo a mí?

Are you two pulling my leg [literally "pulling my hair"]?

Caption 30, Yago - 6 Mentiras

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¿Qué tango, me estás tomando el pelo?

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

Yo no escucho ningún tango.

I don't hear any tango.

Captions 46-47, Muñeca Brava - 30 Revelaciones

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