Three Spanish Phrases That Don’t Translate Easily

Cultural differences make it easy for idioms to be easily lost in translation. If you’ve never heard a phrase you didn’t understand in the middle of a Spanish conversation, and you’re a Spanish language learner, then it really shouldn’t be long till you’ll have the chance to feel a bit puzzled. You’ll wonder how it is that a culture can put what seems like the simplest of words into the silliest of contexts. Once you get a chance to digest their meaning, however, you’ll probably want to use them in your regular Spanish conversations whenever you get the chance. And the fact is, there are many common Spanish phrases that don’t translate well into English – you’ll have some fun just becoming acquainted with them. Here are three to get you started.

  1. ¡Aguas! (This is not very common in Spain, but it is in some places in Latin America.)
spanish expressions you may find in a conversation
flickr photo shared by Juanedc under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

One of these days you may be walking somewhere, or carrying a little too many things, and all of a sudden you’ll hear someone in Spanish saying ¡aguas con eso! (waters with that!). You might halt your steps and look around, wondering what in the world that Spanish speaker is talking about. But if you just stop to take a good look at your immediate situation, you’ll actually be doing exactly what you need to do. ¡Aguas! is a warning that there is an accident waiting to happen or that there is something that needs to be avoided. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there are waters gushing out at you, about to knock you over, but it is a phrase that would be appropriately used in situations that have any semblance to a startling moment (such as right before someone is about to step into an unseen puddle!). Another way to imagine this phrase is to think of someone who is about to throw out a bucket of bath water – you would surely want to get out of the way! If someone uses this phrase with you, be quick to react and set things straight for yourself.

  1. ¡Por si las moscas!

Aside from ¡aguas!, though, another good phrase for anticipating accidents is ¡por si las moscas! (for in the case of flies!). If you hear those words, you might ask, “Flies? What flies?” The thing is, the phrase isn’t just about flies. The word illustrates the emotional context for a what-if that can catch you off-guard. It can be irritating to all of a sudden deal with a bunch of flies and not have the appropriate tools to shoo them away (or whatnot), so this phrase is best used when doing things that help avoid being unprepared. It is like saying, “Just in case!” It may also act as the equivalent of “knock on wood,” especially if the speaker accompanies it by making the sign of the cross.

  1. ¡No te hagas bolas!

As with the last phrase (which addresses the what-ifs), there are other phrases that deal with anticipation. One in particular tries to redirect the thinking of the person being addressed. If you hear ¡no te hagas bolas! (don’t make yourself balls), you might ask how anyone could make themselves into balls. In Spanish, someone would explain that this means to not revolve (mix-up) your mind. It is a way of saying that you shouldn’t get yourself caught up thinking about something in a useless manner. In other words, don’t confuse yourself! Ways to make yourself into balls would include having unreasonable expectations and assumptions, or getting your hopes up about something that is not going to materialize. It is like saying “don’t complicate things!” or “don’t fool yourself!”

Hopefully these three phrases spark your interest into learning the creative ways in which Spanish can be used to express oneself. By learning common Spanish phrases that don’t translate as easily as others, you can immerse yourself more fully within a Spanish conversation and even enjoy a knowing smile with a fluent speaker. No te hagas bolas if you don’t get a phrase right away. Have fun while you learn and enjoy those little confusing moments that help you get that much closer to your fluency goal.

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