Beware of These Spanish Translation Mistakes

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What do Spanish people call their frenemies? It’s simple, really—enemigos. Ha! Get it? Or am I the only one who thought that was funny.

Translation can be a tricky thing. It’s tempting to Englishize all the Spanish words we don’t know. Thus, problem becomes problemo (wrong) and perfect becomes perfecto (correct). But sometimes we get into trouble with this line of thinking.

My Top 10 Spanish Translation Mistakes

Embarazada Embarrassed False Friend

1. Estar embarazada vs. to be embarrassed

Come on, I can’t not mention it. Who hasn’t, on their first trip to Spain or Mexico or wherever, let it slip that they’re so embarazada? I know I have. Too bad embarazada means pregnant!

2. Ser bueno/malo vs. estar bueno/malo

Haven’t you ever wanted to say, “She’s very good”, meaning “She’s doing very well”? Of course you have. But I do hope you haven’t blurted out, Está buena, especially if you were talking about your grandmother. Because there’s a giant gulf between es buena and está buena. One means that she’s a good person, while the other means she’s hot! Oops!

Conversely, es malo mean’s he’s a bad person, while está malo means he’s a bit under the weather. Tricky, tricky!

Estar Constipado False Friend

3. Estar constipado vs. to be constipated

The first time I heard my intercambio (conversation-exchange partner) tell me that he was constipado, I flipped out a bit. Whaaaaat?!? Why the heck was he telling me this on the second day I’d met him? I was a bit concerned about our future if he was going to keep being so frank with me. Luckily, we soon figured out that what he meant in English was I’m stuffed up. He had a cold. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and I learned a lesson: estar constipado/a means to be stuffed up, and the way to say I’m constipated was entirely different (estar estreñido/a). Whew!

4. Estar excitado vs. to be excited

In English, we get excited a lot. Just before I am about to go home to the US, I always tell my sister-in-law, Colleen: “I’m so excited!” And I am. But I am most definitely not excitada. Not at all. Why?

In Spanish, excitado/a means sexually excited or turned on. Not exactly the sentiment you want to convey when you express your enthusiasm for a new movie or restaurant or meeting your favorite author (unless, of course, your favorite author is a total babe).

5. Estar molesto vs. to be molested

Let’s get it out there in the open—estar molesto does not mean what it sounds like! The first time I heard this expression I was a bit confused. Molested? You are molested? How? Why? When? Where? But no. In Spanish estar molesto means to be annoyed. Thus, if you molestar someone, you are annoying them—not molesting them.

Fireman Bombero

6. Bomberos vs. bombers

Oh no! That kitten is caught up in that tree. Who should we call? Certainly not los bomberos, no? Sounds a lot like bombers. Actually yes, call them. Although I don’t know whether firefighters actually rescue kittens in Spain.

Estar Caliente To Be Hot

7. Estar caliente vs. to be hot

You’re hot then you’re cold / you’re yes then you’re no …

In English, we are things: hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, years old. In Spanish, you have things: Tengo 11 años. Well, it’s that way for a reason, because saying Tengo calor is quite different than Estoy caliente. Tengo calor, while literally meaning “I have heat,” is our equivalent to “I’m hot.” Estoy caliente is our equivalent of “I’m horny.” Yep, you definitely don’t want to be saying that when talking to your cute new Spanish friend, now do you?

8. Discusión vs. discussion

A discussion sounds nice and civilized. It sounds like an event wherein the participants sit down at a round table to talk about an issue, calmly and without rancor. But a discussion is not equivalent to a discusión, as I soon found out upon my arrival in Spain. I’d ask for a nice discusión, and my intercambios would tell me that, no, they preferred not to discutir.

Why? Well, the answer may lie in the fact that discutir means to argue, and a discusión is an argument. Not so civilized after all.

Vin Diesel Complexion Fuerte

9. Complexión vs. complexion

These two words are spelled exactly the same. (Well, except for the accent mark.) It seems, therefore, that they would mean the exact same thing. Well … not so fast. In fact, complexión has nothing to do with one’s skin tone but with one’s physiological build (muscular, thin, rangy, etc.). For example, you could consider Vin Diesel to be un hombre de complexión fuerte, meaning he’s a strong, well-built man. But if we’re talking about the English meaning of complexion, you’ll need to use tez or cutis.

10. Billón vs. billion

This one is the most mind-boggling of them all for me, because it has to do with numbers! I don’t understand why one country can consider a billion to be a different amount than another. I can imagine that it causes all sorts of confusion in the international setting. A Spanish billón is an American trillion (1,000,000,000,000), but in traditional British English it’s also a billion. Confused yet? So a billón is a false friend in American English but not in British. Hmph!

What are some funny mistakes you have made? Or maybe that your friends have made?

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16 comments

    1. Tee-chair, classic! Yes, I love when the kids translate into English. Mine would try to make it English by adding “-ation” or “-ate”. Like “observate” or “conversate”.

      1. My favorite example from a friend was his co-teacher who was always yelling at her students, “Espabilations!”

        Also, congratulations on your translation business!

  1. I always thought “tengo calor” meant “I’m horny” too. Whenever I said it, I always got creepy looks from guys (both Spanish and non-Spanish). And the Spanish students told me that’s what it meant. Then again, I was in Valencia, so maybe it’s just a Catalan thing?

    Now that I’m back in the US, I notice that Latin Americans mostly say “hace calor”, even if they’re the only ones that are hot, not just if it’s hot in general. Btw I think you should do a “guiris/extranjeras dating Spanish speakers” series. I know it’s not a sexy title, but that would include latinos in the mix, and make for a more interesting narrative :)

  2. This is so funny! I’ve definitely made some of these mistakes, and only very recently learned about the billion thing. Why would the U.S. do that?? It makes no sense.

    Two mistakes I saw a lot when I was studying at the Universidad de Sevilla were English speakers mixing up ‘asignatura’ for ‘signature’ and getting confused when the professors asked about their ‘carpetas’, thinking they were suddenly talking about carpets.

    By the way, I love the squirrel picture!

    1. Well, I’m not sure the U.S. did anything. It was once such a big number than it was unfathomable, almost. And so the languages didn’t really agree on it (I suppose). I do think it’s better to have one word than to say “a thousand million.” Dunno. But the Brits are actually changing to the American way!

      Ah, yes, carpeta is a classic one!

  3. A lot of those are similar to French like 2, 4, 5 (although nobody uses the verb molester anymore), 7, 8 and 10. So many similarities!

    One thing I should point out: in your new page offering your translation services you write, “free rate”. Are you sure you didn’t mean to say, “free quote” instead? I also work as a translator and this is the term I always use.

  4. Reblogged this on Adventures in Spain and commented:
    It’s true that every now and then, Spanish vocab is verrrrry similar to English. However, it’s very important to not forget that it’s not always possible to add a couple of letters onto an English word in order to get your point across. Have a read and discover what you REALLY want to say… (I’m definitely guilty of a number of these).

  5. As someone who translates/proofreads French e-mails for her coworkers nearly every day, I love this post. I’ve run into some interesting translation mistakes where what would make sense in English sounds very awkward and nonsensical in French. Just today one of my coworkers tried to use the word “tentative” in an e-mail in French, only in French it means an attempt at something, not something that may or may not happen.

    This isn’t really translation related but when I was little, I once horrified my babysitter when I kept repeating the word “phoque” which is a seal in English (foca in Spanish!). While it does not resemble the F word in the slightest it is pronounced “fuck” so my mother had to explain I was simply expressing new French vocab I’d picked up, and not imitating English swear words.

  6. My most notorious mistakes when I first moved to Central America: 1) translating my standard opening line for toddlers( ” how nice, I really like your shoes”) as “Que linda, quiero sus zapatos” — I figured out the gustar/querer thing when a little boy looked at me in horror, saidMy most notorious mistakes when I first moved to Central America: 1) translating my standard opening line for toddlers( ” how nice, I really like your shoes”) as “Que linda, quiero sus zapatos” — I figured out the gustar/querer thing when a little boy looked at me in horror, said “no”, and hid behind his abuelo’s leg. And, 2) telling someone at the gym that I had to leave now because I have “mucho hombre”. Even though she was accustomed to my broken Spanish, she looked my husband up and down and nodded appreciatively for a few seconds before I was able to correct myself .

    I still send friends into peals of laughter sometimes, but those, I think, were my “best” mistakes. :) I found your blog yesterday, and am enjoying it immensely! Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experiences.
    “no”, and hid behind his abuelo’s leg. And, 2) telling someone at the gym that I had to leave now because I have “mucho hombre”. Even though she was accustomed to my broken Spanish, she looked my husband up and down and nodded appreciatively for a few seconds before I was able to correct myself .

    I still send friends into peals of laughter sometimes, but those, I think, were my “best” mistakes. :) I found your blog yesterday, and am enjoying it immensely! Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experiences.

  7. Saludos. I’m not good enough writing english, so I’ll write in spanish. Es muy interesante este artículo (“post”). Pero creo que hablamos de los idiomas en un nivel coloquial. En novelas de hace más de cien años un caballero podía perfectamente estar embarazado (molesto) por cualquier cuestión (embarazosa, evidentemente). En cuanto a constipado, existe la expresión próxima “constipación de vientre”, que significa estreñimiento (constipated?): en latín “constipare” parece que significa constreñir (si se constriñen los poros, catarro; si el intestino, la otra acepción).
    En cuanto a billion, a lo mejor en América del Norte a la gente se le hacía difícil contar mil millones; la Academia de la Lengua hace pocos años propuso para el español el término prestado del francés “billardo”.
    Un error, más cultural que lingüístico, lo noto en ciertos documentales norteamericanos mal traducidos (al español): todas las cosas (descubrimientos, situaciones, etc.) son excitantes. Deseas que todos, locutor y protagonistas se calmen un poco y tomen la vida un poco más relajadamente.

    1. Right, of course I’ve heard of a “situación embarazosa”, but I’m still not gonna burst out with a “Estoy embarazada”, because that would be understood as “I’m pregnant.” Unless I’m really pregnant (which I’m not), I don’t want to go around saying that.

      Likewise, in English, “constipated” always means estreñido, so avoid saying that unless you want all your friends to know about your bowels.

  8. Hi! I just found your blog post and Im enjoying all these comments.
    I probably make lots of these mistakes myself in my own page…,but I remember last year, during one of my trips to NY, I was at the nike store, and couldn’t resist laughing when an argentinian guy kept asking the nike employee (who spoke perfect Spanish) for sockets (instead of socks!) Hahaha!

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