Sometimes, English and Spanish are not as far apart as they may first seem. There are some similar sayings or idioms which are shared between the two languages: those that can be translated literally (unfortunately, there aren’t many of these!) and those that look similar, but do not have anything in common.
Let’s have a look at a few English idioms and see how they are used in Spanish.
What’s an idiom?
In Spain we use ‘idioms’ or ‘sayings’ in different ways. Expresiones, refranes and dichos are all known as everyday wisdom, and although they are not present in many language books, they can show others how passionate you are about a language. So open your eyes and be my guest to take your Spanish to the next level!
1. Half a loaf is better than none
The colloquial verison of this idiom is "Something is better than nothing". The Spanish equivalent of this phrase is a falta de pan, buenas son tortas. The meaning is the same as it is in English - if you didn’t get what you want, be happy with the things you have, and the future will bring better times.
Example: You join an academy to learn Spanish and you were expecting to have a Spanish native speaker as a teacher but instead your teacher is non-native (although they have lived in Spain for several years). You may be annoyed at first but finally accept by saying:
Estaba esperando un profesor nativo, pero habla bastante bien y conoce la cultura, así que supongo que a falta de pan buenas son tortas.
I was expecting a native speaker, but he speaks quite well and knows the culture, so I guess half loaf is better than none.
2. All cats are grey in the dark
This phrase is exactly the same in Spanish as English, and can be translated literally as todos los gatos son grises en la oscuridad. However, we usually change it a bit and say de noche todos los gatos son pardos. This phrase is used to say that everyone looks similar at night so be careful! Do not make any decisions at night about someone, but wait until next morning.
Example: You have a friend who met a guy last Saturday, and she is telling you how amazing he is. You probably want to warn her:
Espera a quedar con él otro día, ya sabes que de noche todos los gatos son pardos.
Wait until you meet him again, you know that all cats are grey in the dark.
3. Nothing ventured, nothing gained
Again, this phrase is almost the same in Spanish, it just has a slight twist: quien no arriesga no gana. This idiom means you can get anything you want, you just need to take the risk.
Example: Your friend is thinking about starting up a design business, and she is really good at it. But she is not sure if she should quit her job as she is scared. You could encourage her by saying:
Eres muy buena, deberías empezar tu propio negocio, !arriesgate! Ya sabes que quien no arriesga no gana.
You are really good, you should start your business, you know…nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Most pessimistic people would answer the sentences saying: quien no arriesga no gana or lo pierde todo or in other words... ‘they lose it all’. This might be your friend’s answer to the sentences above, so be ready to take the hit!
4. An apple a day keeps the doctor away
And in Spanish, it’s exactly that: una manzana al día, de medico te ahorraría. This saying means that according to popular wisdom, choosing the healthy options will give you a healthy life.
Example: You have a friend that goes to the doctor quite often. You can give him the advice:
Una manzana al día, de médica te ahorraría.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
5. When one is tired, all beds are good
The exact translation would be something like: cuando uno está cansado todas las camas son buenas. However, we change it a bit just to make it sound a bit more flashier than it is: a buen sueño no hay mala cama. You use this phrase when you are so tired that you could sleep anywhere.
Example: You are really tired after a long trip and you arrive to a place that looks bad. You could say:
Yo espera una cama algo más cómoda, pero a buen sueño no hay mala cama.
I was expecting a more comfortable bed but when one is tired all beds are good.
Extra tip: in this situation you can also say: a falta de pan buenas son tortas - better a bad bed than no bed!
6. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
This can be literally translated as si tú me rascas la espalda, yo te rascaré la tuya but this phrases changes a bit in common usage and instead we say hoy por ti, mañana por mi. This is quite common to use when you want to let the other person know, that you may be doing them a favour but they owe you one back…
Example: You need to take the day off and someone at work is doing your shift, you are be really grateful (thinking they are doing it because they are so nice) but they probably surprise you by saying:
No te preocupes, hoy por ti mañana por mi.
Don’t worry, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
Be prepared to repay that favour!
7. Actions speak louder than words
Literally, this phrase is las accciones hablan más que las palabras, but once again we like to add a small twist and instead say los hechos valen más que las palabras.
Example: You are a kid and do something bad. You go to your mum to say how sorry you are and how much you love her. In Spain your mother would probably say:
No digas que me quieres ahora, simplemente portate bien, los hechos valen más que las palabras.
Do not say you love me now, just behave, actions speak louder than words.
Extra tip: in some parts of Spain, instead of the above it is more common to hear hechos son amores y no buenas razones.
I know there is a lot of information in this article, but if you at least take away one of the sentences each time you read it, your fluency will improve in no time - I promise! Pick one of the above phrases and write a sentence using it in the comments below.
I would love to hear other comments from you too:
- Have you hear any of the sayings above (in Spanish or in English)
- Do you have a favourite one?
- Which one do you think is more useful?