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Are you Lost in Translation? The Secrets of Spanish Idioms

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Imagine you’re an explorer, discovering a new land for the first time. As you wander through this strange territory, you stumble upon a phrase that says, “Kick the bucket.” Do you start looking for a bucket to kick? Not if you know your idioms!

That would leave the locals looking at you like you’re the one who’s lost your marbles!

You see, an idiom is a phrase where the words together have a different meaning than their literal definitions. It’s a bit like a secret code, puzzling to newcomers but instantly clear to those who are in on the secret. They give a language its distinct flavor, adding a layer of cultural richness that can’t be appreciated through direct translation.

Take our friend, the British manager. Eager to lead some activities at a company in China, he started his session with a classic English idiom, “To get the ball rolling...” In an attempt to clarify, he mimed the action of rolling a bowling ball. Instead of nodding heads, he was met with a sea of puzzled faces. His literal interpretation of the idiom just bowled a strike in the alley of confusion!

In reality, “to get the ball rolling” simply means to start an activity or process. It doesn’t involve any actual balls or any form of athletic activity. Now, if our British manager had known this, he might have avoided the bemused stares and his activity could have started off on the right foot, idiomatically speaking!

So you need to be aware of idioms in your own language before you even try to start speaking another. You could translate a phrase perfectly and it could still not make sense. Try to express yourself in the most simple way possible to avoid confusion. But if you really want to wow people with your impressive Spanish, here are some idioms that you might want to show off:

Colgar los tenis - Literally: to hang up your sneakers

This is an interesting one because it translates to a totally different idiom in English “to kick the bucket”. If you say colgó los tenis it means someone died. As you know, we Mexicans celebrate death so they have several idioms to say this:

Lo chupó la bruja - the witch sucked him

Ya piró - he already left (pirar is casual like “beat it”, “scram”, or “bounce”)

Lo cargó el payaso - the clown carried him

Pan comido - literally: eaten bread This also has a similar translation in English - it’s a piece of cake. As you may know, bread in Mexico can be very sweet so often pan is used to refer to what would be cake in English.

Echar hueva - literally: throw eggs (kind of)

It seems we Latin Americans have an interesting obsession with eggs. You may know that while in English, you say balls to refer to testicles, in Spanish, we say eggs.

¡Me pateó en los huevos! - He kicked me in the balls!

But it gets even weirder. In English, if somebody has big balls, they say that they are brave. In Spanish, someone with enormous testicles is lazy! In many parts of Latin America (particularly South America), the word huevón (he with big eggs) is a very common word to refer to a man, particularly if he is lazy. In Mexico, this same logic leads us to the phrase Echar hueva, which means the activity of being lazy or doing nothing.

Check out this fun video I made about this:

Don’t ask me why huevo became hueva here! Sometimes languages are just like that...

¿Qué vas a hacer hoy? - Voy a echar hueva What are you going to do today? - Nothing. I’m just going to be lazy.

Is there another idiom you know in Spanish? Let me know below in the comments!

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La Karencita
La Karencita
Aug 24, 2023

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