We’re all familiar with the image of Spain as the land of fiesta and siesta. We can argue about the accuracy or otherwise of this stereotype, but one thing’s for sure – both of these Spanish words have gone into English just as they are because there is no exact cultural equivalent in the Anglo-Saxon world and therefore no simple translation.
Take siesta, for example – the Spanish climate (even more so in the days before air-conditioning!) can make it all but impossible in some areas to do anything but lie down and rest during the hottest part of the day.
As we all know, there is rarely any such heat to seek refuge from in the UK! So while people might talk about having a nap, or having forty winks, these expressions are not in any way linked to a cultural tradition. They just mean having a short rest because you’re feeling tired and can apply to any time of day.
Let’s have a look today at 10 other words you can’t translate directly into English. In these cases, you can’t simply use the Spanish word, so you will need a phrase or another expression to make sure that you get the idea across.
Lingering at the table after the main meal of the day, socializing with family or friends while you have coffee or another drink or a cigarette can only really be translated as the time spent talking at the table after eating. In the English-speaking world, eating is often regarded as necessary refuelling rather than a social event, so the concept of la sobremesa may come as a real surprise to some people!
Depending on the situation, we can talk about having a snack, having a tea break, stopping for a coffee and so on. If you’re going out somewhere and taking your merienda with you, it’s a packed lunch.
This is usually translated as have lunch but can also be used to refer to having a mid-morning stop for a coffee and snack or what we might term a brunch. Here, the most natural thing to say in English would be to have a coffee/tea break or perhaps to have elevenses.
This verb can really only be translated by the phrase get up early in the morning or get up in the early hours. So if you stayed up really late, you’d say ‘I was up until 3 o’clock in the morning’ or ‘I didn’t get to bed until 3 in the morning’.
Again, we have to use a phrase which will vary depending on circumstances: to stay up all night, to stay up very late, to have a night on the tiles (if you mean staying out late partying) or simply to spend the night in a place. For example, ‘We spent the night in Zamora on our way to Portugal‘.
If you find yourself in this unhappy predicament you are wide awake all night or unable to (get to) sleep.
This is an extremely versatile word in Spanish, but how it translates into English will again depend on the context.
Voy estrenando zapatos – I’m wearing new shoes/I’m breaking in my new shoes.
El piso es a estrenar – The flat is brand-new.
Me estrené como profesora a la edad de veinticinco años – I started out as a teacher at the age of twenty-five.
¿Has estrenado ya el coche? – Have you driven your new car yet?
This adjective means to be very sensitive to the cold, but the phrase we’d most likely use is I really feel the cold. (Notice the use of the in this expression). When we talk about the opposite feeling we say I don’t feel the cold or The cold never bothers me.
There are many different ways to translate this idea, but the most common would be to be embarrassed for someone or to say that something makes you cringe.
La niña cantaba tan mal que sentí vergüenza ajena. – The girl sang so badly I was embarrassed for her. – The girl sang so badly it made me cringe.
The is the one that really confuses non-Spanish speakers, the idea that there is a colour which can be described as grey-brown or brownish-grey, depending on your perception or the situation. Why, they ask, is un caballo pardo a brown horse, but a gato pardo a grey cat? It’s a good question, but like so much in language, not one which has an easy answer!
Todos los gatos son pardos de noche – Everything looks the same in the dark!
So, which other words do you find it difficult to translate? Let us know in the comments below!