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Ten Spanish expressions that don’t translate well into English

Terminology, Translation

Spanish is the world’s most widely spoken Romance language, and its proliferation in different countries and locales presents its own set of translation challenges. But setting intra-linguistic variations aside for a moment, even true romantics don’t love localizing these ten hard to translate terms and phrases into other languages. They’re common expressions that don’t have English equivalents. For the sake of simplicity, they all originate from Spain.

1. Puente

If you were ever a student, worker or perhaps just an architecture enthusiast in Spain, you no doubt rejoiced upon hearing this term. Used in a literal sense, puente simply means “bridge.” In other contexts, it refers to an extended weekend that arises when a public holiday falls near, but not directly next to a weekend. For example, if a holiday falls on a Thursday, workers might have a puente in which they are given Friday, as well as Thursday off work. A puente “bridges” the gap between the holiday and the weekend.

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2. ¡Ojo!

Ojo is the Spanish word for “eye.” But look out! In certain contexts, it can mean “watch yourself because I’m watching you!”

3. Quedarse de piedra

Hispanophones use this expression to describe when someone is stunned or frozen from shock. Quedarse de piedra literally translates as “to stay like a stone.” For example, in order to say “I was shocked when I saw the car crash in front of me,” a Spanish speaker might say me quedé de piedra cuando vi el accidente de coche. “I stayed like a stone when I saw the car crash.”

4. Consuegro, consuegra

Explaining consuegro and consuegra in English requires multiple words and considerable mental calculation on the part of the translator. Most simply, it describes “the father/mother of one’s son/daughter-in-law.” This can make translation between the two languages challenging when a concise statement in Spanish like “That’s John; he is my consuegro” becomes “That’s John; he’s the father of my son/daughter-in-law.”

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5. ¡El mundo es un pañuelo!

When you run into someone you don’t expect, the world isn’t just small, it’s un pañuelo — a handkerchief. Why a handkerchief? For a Spaniard, a handkerchief is something small enough to tuck in your pocket — and with only four corners to explore, there’s always a chance you’ll run into someone.

6. Empalagar

The Spanish language has one verb to illustrate the unpleasant feeling after eating too much of something sweet. Next time you go for that second piece of chocolate cake — and immediately regret it — you can say No debería haber comido ese pastel, es demasiado dulce y empalaga, or “I shouldn’t have eaten that cake; it’s too sugary and overly sweet-ed me.”

7. ¡Nada del otro mundo!

That news is nada del otro mundo, or literally, “nothing from the other world.” Often accompanied by a sarcastic tone, the speaker uses this phrase to convey that they are unsurprised by a particular piece of news. Apparently for Spanish speakers, news is only impressive when it comes from another world.

8. Estrenar

Estrenar is another case of the Spanish language containing verbs that don’t exist in English.

This term depicts the action of wearing or using something for the first time. For example, in the phrase “yesterday, I wore my new shoes for the first time,” Spanish-speakers can replace “wore for the first time” with estrenar. Ayer estrené mis zapatos nuevos. “Yesterday, I ‘first-time-wore’ my new shoes.”

9. Ponerse las botas

Ponerse las botas literally translates as “to put on the boots.” But don’t worry if a Spanish speaker says this after a meal. They’re not looking to leave in a hurry. Rather, it’s a way of expressing that they were well-fed. The origin of this phrase dates back to a time when boot-owners were wealthy and regularly enjoyed bountiful feasts.

10. Sobremesa

It’s not uncommon for the average Spaniard to spend hours at the dinner table, savoring a delicious meal and catching up with family or friends. The importance of this experience is reflected in their language. Sobremesa describes the time spent at the table chatting and digesting.

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Sophia Eakins is a marketing content specialist for Lionbridge, a global company delivering localization and AI training data services in 350+ languages. Her bachelor in linguistics comes from Wellesley College, with additional study at the Laboratoire Parole et Langage in Aix-en-Provence, France.

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