Have you ever traveled to Latin America or Spain and been stumped on how to translate an expression into English? Everyone has. In theory, every phrase or word can be roughly translated into English. But when linguists talk about “untranslatable” words, they’re referring to words that lose a part of their essence as they cross from one language to another. This happens when unique social and cultural contexts, exclusive to Latin America and Spain, have shaped how certain Spanish-language expressions are used.
Let’s take a word like quincena, which is a payment that many employees receive in the Spanish-speaking world on the 15th of the month, which gets clunky as you explain it in English. Though it’s almost like ‘fortnight,’ they use 15 days as a marker instead of 14. Jurga Zilinskiene, the managing director of Today Translations, once said in an interview that “people sometimes forget that an interpreter must translate not just from one language to another but from one culture to another.” A translator’s work is not easy! Here are 15 Spanish-language expressions that are not smoothly translated into English, but that are fun to use in Spanish when you can.
The space between a person’s eyebrows. Example: Frida Kahlo and Bert from Sesame Street, who both sported unibrows, lacked an entrecejo.
The term used to denote the husband of your spouse’s sister or the husband of your sister-in-law. Example: Concuñada is the female term for your spouse’s brother’s wife.
To have a snack or to go out for an afternoon snack. Example: The mothers and their children set an afternoon date to merendar together after school.
A morbid type of fascination for unpleasant things. For example: Those with a love for the sight of blood or who are drawn to the scene of an accident experience morbo.
Someone who has the same name as you. Example: If your name is Anna, and there’s another Anna in the room, she’s your tocaya.
When a child is extremely attached (emotionally) to their mother. Example: If your child starts to whimper when you go into the next room, even if their father is with them.
7. Vergüenza (or Pena) ajena
To feel embarrassed for someone even if they don’t feel embarrassed themselves. Example. I have vergüenza ajena for that actor who doesn’t realize how bad his British accent is.
The time spent talking at a table after eating a meal with a group. Example: The dishes have been cleared and after dinner drinks have been served during the sobremesa.
The mysterious power that a work of art or nature itself has to deeply move a person. Example: That incredible flamenco dancer possesses duende.
10. Te Quiero
I really care for you, but don’t quite love you. Example. If you want to tell your best friend how much you adore them, you say te quiero.
11. Dar un Toque
Calling someone, letting it ring once, then hanging up so the person knows to call you back or that you’re contacting them. Example: “Dame un toque when you arrive downstairs, I’ll come down.”
A person who is very sensitive to cold. Example: My grandmother was friolenta and could sense when a window was slightly open in any room of the house.
To treat someone informally by addressing them as “tú” instead of the more formal “usted.” Example: It is recommended not to tutear your superiors until you’ve established a friendship.
14. El de la Vergüenza
This is one of our favorite Spanish phrases. Roughly translated as ‘the bite of shame.’ Example: When there’s only one piece left of a delicious dish or dessert and everyone sits there trying to figure out how to snatch it without appearing selfish.