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!


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Understanding a Language in Stages

We were watching a soccer (football) match on television a few months ago when it hit me: I understood him—the commentator, that is. Even when a goal was scored and his words flew out faster than I thought possible, I understood. I wasn’t even trying. A few years ago, I would have been astounded to understand such commentary. (If you don’t know, they tend to speak very quickly.) Nowadays it’s almost old hat. What a change!

And I’m not saying this to brag. I got to thinking about the different levels of understanding a language. In my case, it’s Spanish, specifically Spain Spanish.

Of course you could go with levels, but I prefer my own method here:


What’s With all the Al- Words in Spanish?

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Mario and I went to Italy on our honeymoon. (In July, no less.) It was there that Mario unlearned his very first Spanish word, the word for basil. You see, in Italy, we were eating quite a few Caprese salads (insalata caprese), a simple salad from Capri consisting of sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, fresh basil, seasoned with salt and olive oil. This salad? Our idea of summer perfection, so we ordered it more than a few times. Mario liked to fancy himself an Italian speaker, so he would order while I pretended I didn’t know English or Italian or Spanish. (Clueless guiri card? Yeah, I’ll play it, even in Italy.) He probably read the description of the insalata caprese a few times, all of which mentioned basilico.

Basil Albahaca

Back in Spain, Mario kept referring to basil as basilico, the Italian word for basil. I thought he was just being cute and trying to remind me of our time in Italy, but it soon became apparent: Mario actually thought the word was basílico, when it was in fact albahaca. I let this go on for a few more days before kindly telling him, “Mario, en tu idioma se dice albahaca.”


Why Do We Call José “Pepe”?

¡Hola, don Pepito! ¡Hola, Don José! So goes a popular children’s song in Spain … but once you start thinking about it, you realize both of these men are named José, and you start wondering what’s really going on here.

Hola Don Pepito

One of the many things that used to baffle me was the origin of Spanish nicknames. (Oh okay, they still kinda baffle me!) I understood how “Francisco” could become “Fran” and “Beatriz” could become “Bea,” but I didn’t quite understood where the heck “Pepe” came from!

  1. There are no Ps in the name José.
  2. There are the same amount of syllables in both Pepe and José, thus saving you no time.

I decided to turn to the ultimate source, Mario’s dad. As I have explained before, he is knowledgeable about so many aspects of Spanish culture, being a former teacher and all-around know-it-all in the best way. If I ever have a “duda,” he’s the guy I go to, especially if that duda has to do with plants, animals, climate, or Spanish history. He’s my guy.

He told me all about the reasoning behind the nicknaming process, but it all went over my head, a great whoosh! of knowledge flying speedily in one ear and out the other. A few years later, still feeling rather flummoxed, I sat down to put an end to this ignorance of mine.

  • Pepe. This diminutive comes from the name José as I said earlier. There are two theories out there. The first, often espoused by the Spanish, is that it comes from the abbreviation of pater putativus (P.P.), which means “supposed Father” in Latin, attributed to Joseph of Nazareth (José de Nazaret), Mary’s husband and Jesus’s supposed father. This is mainly a popular legend, and most reputable sources claim that the real story is that Pepe comes from the Italian Beppe, short for Giuseppe (the Italian cognate for Joseph). I guess even most Spaniards have something to learn from this blog post!
  • Paco. Paco comes from Francisco. St. Francis of Assisi was known as the Pater Comunitatis (Father of the Community) when he founded the Franciscan order. Thus, we get Paco from the first two letters of each word.

Other diminutives of interest:

  • Chema. One of Mario’s friends in Salamanca when I met him was called Chema, and I had no idea his real name was José María for the longest time. Never mind that whole using a female name thing as well.
  • Sito. Mario’s cousin, Sito, ran the marathon with him, as you might recall. Any guesses to his given name? Alfonso. Sitos are usually Alfonsos, although there is probably an exception out there somewhere. Alfonso –> Alfonsito –> Sito.
  • Quique/Kike. Comes from Enrique.
  • Chus, Susi, Suso. Those with the name Jesús out there have a lot of different nicknames!

Which Spanish nicknames do you find the most amusing or interesting?