Spanish words that “don’t exist” in English – difficult Spanish translations

Back in the day I used to teach English.

And occasionally someone would tell me, in class, “Daniel, your language is so limited. How do you even communicate? You don’t have words for anything!”

Usually what this meant was that the person in question had never opened a book, or had an intelligent conversation with a “native speaker“, and therefore had not come into contact with anything beyond an intermediate-level vocabulary.

I’d resist the urge to slap them upside the head with all 20 volumes of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and politely explain that we actually have a lot of vocabulary in English, and that maybe we could take some time to learn some.

But occasionally someone would stump me with a difficult translation.

Teacher, how do you say “Soy muy friolera” in English?

Hm. I guess it means you’re always feeling cold. But we don’t have a specific word, per se.

What about “Soy muy golosa”, then?

That means you have a sweet tooth. But I guess it’s not a very direct translation.

And it turns out there are a lot of these. Which seems like a good enough topic for today, first in video…

Spanish words that don’t exist in English

Keep reading for a much longer list of words, I only do 4 examples there on YouTube.

So without further ado, here’s a short list of Spanish words that don’t really exist in English – and how we’d probably describe the same thing.

(If we would. Sometimes these words are for situations we just don’t talk about, or probably wouldn’t mention.)

Well, here goes…

entrecejo = the space between a person’s eyebrows

This makes some sense. “Las cejas” are eyebrows, and “entre” expresses the idea of between.

Interestingly, the English verb “frown” is a bit difficult to translate to Spanish. One option is “fruncir el entrecejo”, which can be translated more literally as “to knit one’s brow”. Very literary, I know.

Another one I like is the adjective cejijunto, which means that someone has a unibrow, Frida-Kahlo style.

Next up…

estrenar = wear something for the first time

The word “estrenar” has a few different uses. One of the most common is “Voy a estrenar mis nuevas zapatillas” which means you’re going to wear them for the first time.

You could say this about quite a few things you’re using for the first time… If you move into a new house (or buy a new bed) you could say “Vamos a estrenar la cama” to invite your significant other to have sexual intercourse. For example.

Got a new bike? ¡Estrénala! A new coat? ¡Estrénalo!

Etc. You see where I’m going with this.

sobremesa = a long conversation after lunch or dinner, without getting up from the table

Basically what it sounds like.

In Spain, you sit down for a big paella lunch at 2 PM and hang out for hours, potentially, after the meal’s done. You can have some more wine, chat with others at the table, enjoy the slowness of the lifestyle.

People from other cultures sometimes get annoyed at me, actually, if I don’t just jump up and leave as soon as I’m done eating at a restaurant. But that’s just not how we do things around here.

The waiter won’t rush you out, in most places.

So relax, and have a sobremesa.

quincena = a period of fifteen days

I guess we could call this a fortnight, but a Spanish “quincena” is technically fifteen days. It comes from “quince”.

On the other hand, they use it in a pretty generic way to mean “two weeks”, so it’s possible that nobody’s counting the exact number of days.

A lot of people would say something like “Tengo vacaciones la segunda quincena de agosto”, meaning, approximately, from the 15th to the 31st of August.

The abandoned factory in Besòs.

Another interesting time expression: un lustro, meaning a period of five years. According to Wordreference, we have an English word “lustrum”, but I’ve personally never heard it.

tocayo = someone with the same name as you

This is fairly a common occurrence: I meet someone named Daniel (or occasionally Daniela) and they call me tocayo because that’s my name, too. “Hola, tocayo!”

In English we might say “Oh, my name is also Daniel, what a coincidence!” But I don’t think we have a specific word to describe our like-named acquaintance.

More religious people in Spain might also wish you a happy name day, based on the feast day for your saintly namesake. I mean, nobody does for me, because San Daniel isn’t a big deal. But if your name is Pilar, or Almudena, or Patricio, or José, someone will probably “felicitarte”.

Of course, your name might not be included in the Christian canon at all, in which case… people might be confused. But don’t worry: things are getting more “modern” in this sense all the time. Naming conventions are becoming more international year by year.

Among the newer generations, in fact, there are fewer María Jesus and José Antonio, and more, um, Iker and Khaleesi.

botellón = a gathering of people drinking in the street

This is mostly illegal, these days, but people do it quite a bit.

The literal translation is “big bottle”, but what it refers to is an informal street party. These can have, in some cases, thousands of people, and last all night long.

If you live in any major Spanish city, there’s probably one happening near you this very weekend.

Look for neighborhoods where young people tend to hang out: Lavapies or Malasaña in Madrid, Born or Gracia in Barcelona.

Just don’t get fined.

puente = a long weekend

Of course, puente is usually a bridge, but occasionally, it’s a way of describing a long weekend.

In the US, we tend to celebrate most holidays on a Monday, because capitalism.

Not so in Spain. If the Feast of the Immaculate Conception happens to fall on Wednesday, well, you get Wednesday off. Some people will also take vacation days on Thursday and Friday, creating a five-day weekend for themselves. That’s a puente.

In the US, the closest thing we have is Thanksgiving, which is just a four-day weekend. But here in Spain you could have a puente for the Immaculate Conception, for Constitution Day, for All Saints’ Day, for Corpus Christi (whatever that is)…

In other words, for lots of things!

The city of Cádiz.

madrugar = to get up early

If you try to explain the phrase “The early bird gets the worm”, Spanish people will think you’re demented. What worm? I don’t want to eat worms! And do I LOOK LIKE a bird to you?

But they have their equivalent: “A quien madruga, Dios le ayuda.”

God helps (s)he who gets up early, in other words.

On the other hand, you can also say “No por mucho madrugar amanece más temprano” which means that some things take time, and can’t be hurried.

Most commonly, though, you’d hear something like “Lo siento, Daniel, no puedo salir hoy. Es que mañana tengo que madrugar.”

(Okay, okay, that’s only if you’re trying to date Spanish girls.)

anteayer = the day before yesterday

Some people point to the expression “the day before yesterday” as an example of English being inelegant and long-winded – using many words when one would do.

Then again, the Spanish word for “the day after tomorrow” is pasado mañana, and “tomorrow morning” is mañana por la mañana, which is hardly any more elegant.

And obviously, despite what armchair linguists might tell you, not having a specific word for something doesn’t stop us from thinking about it. In my opinion, Sapir and Whorf were, for lack of a better phrase, total dumbasses.

But hey, that’s my opinion, and if you don’t agree, it’s probably because your language doesn’t even allow you to have the thought that you might be wrong. Or something. Because Whorf.

And finally…

tutear = to address someone informally

This is the verb for using the “tú” form when speaking with somebody.

Here in Spain, most people do this all the time. I’ve only really used “usted” with elderly neigbors and such.

But in certain situations, I guess, the difference between tú and usted is a big deal. I don’t know. I can’t remember the last time I used the usted form with anyone. It’s been years.

In any case, it’s pretty hard to translate. Sometimes in a Spanish novel, there will be a moment when two characters start to “tutearse” because they’ve gotten closer, and often the English translator just throws up his (or her) hands and explains what happened in a footnote.

Technically, we can have a sort of equivalent conversation in English…

“Nice to meet you, Mr Clinton.”

“Please, call me Bill.”

But it’s not quite the same.

So are there other Spanish words that are impossible to translate?

There certainly are.

But we might have to talk about them another day. There’s also the topic of English words that are hard to translate into Spanish… because, of course, we have a VERY rich vocabulary.

Anything you’d add? Hit me up in the comments.

Have fun!

Daniel.

P.S. If you’re into the language thing, I’ve also got some fun Spanish proverbs, as well as obscene expressions for the whole family… Enjoy!

Daniel
 

How did I end up in Madrid? Why am I still here 12 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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