A different animal: untranslatable Spanish idioms
Humble idiom is one of the most interesting and frustrating things about learning a new language. An idiom is not the sum of its parts. It’s an everyday phrase whose meaning in conversation has little (if anything) to do with the meaning of the words themselves. In American English, for example, “break a leg” means “good luck”.
Each Spanish-speaking country has its own idioms, although some cross borders. With the help of some Latino Lynx from CU Denver, we’ve picked out a few Spanish animal-related idioms that barely make sense when translated literally.
In search of the three paws of the cat
In Spain and many other Spanish-speaking countries, you could accuse someone of looking for the cat’s three paws. “Buscar tres patas al gato” means that you complicate things more than they should be. After all, everyone knows that a cat has four legs.
Like a donkey in a boat
Anyone who is “como burro en lancha” is serious. Very serious, according to Costa Ricans. A donkey in a boat is no laughing matter, as one might imagine. You would assume that if you were in a boat with a donkey you might capsize, but who knows how that expression came about!
It’s an idiom in the form of an interjection! In Spain, if you are surprised or annoyed, you might shout “Ostras! Literally you would say “Oysters! What the mollusk has to do with bad luck or good fortune is unknown.
Putting the bear to work
“Poner el oso a trabajar” is a Cuban favorite which literally means “put the bear to work”. If you say that someone really puts the bear to work, it means that person is very smart or can think creatively. It is not known how this expression got started – there is not even a bear in Cuba.
Thinking about the immortality of the crab
This poetic idiom is most commonly used in Spain. If you think of the immortality of the crab, you are dreaming. Let’s say your dinner companion has a distant look in the eye. So you could say that this friend is “pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo”. There is absolutely no evidence that this saying has anything to do with a seaside village known for its thoughtful people, many of whom make their living from fishing.
Have bad chips
Director of Business Operations Ali Medina, who has lived in Chile and Brazil, provided this Chilean idiom. Someone with bad chips – “tiene malas pulgas” in Spanish – is in a bad mood. This idiom has some meaning, but the term “bad chips” is oxymoronic because there is no such thing as a good chip.