28 Spanish Phrases & Jokes That Don't Quite Translate

28 Spanish Phrases & Jokes That Don’t Quite Translate

28 Spanish Phrases & Jokes That Don't Quite Translate

Have you ever tried to translate a Spanish saying, and realized it didn’t quite mean the same in English? Read on as Spanish tutor Jason N. shares the meaning behind some funny Spanish phrases, sayings, and jokes so you don’t get confused again!


I was exposed to my first Spanish saying back in 2009, when my Mexican host-mother told her sister that “Jason no tiene pelos en la lengua” (Jason doesn’t have hair on his tongue). When I inquired, they both laughed and explained that people who “don’t have hair on their tongue” tend to speak freely and rarely censor their words, whereas people with “hair on their tongue” often censor carefully and speak in ways that are more politically correct.

These kinds of sayings and jokes provide a unique “cultural window” that profoundly informs culture, morals, and values of many Spanish-speaking countries. My experience of more than four years living in Latin America showed me that Spanish-speakers in particular love to play around with words.

Here are some jokes and sayings that don’t translate into English so you don’t get confused. (Note: You can also learn more Spanish sayings and phrases with a live tutor — check out our free class schedule and reserve your spot here!)

1) Querer es poder.

Literal translation:
Wanting to is being able to.

What it actually means:
When there’s a will, there’s a way.

This wise saying points to the resilient heart of Spanish-speaking culture, that even if an obstacle appears insurmountable initially, you can overcome it! You can clearly see the sense of cultural hopefulness here.

2) No hay mal que por bien no venga.

Literal translation:
There’s nothing bad that doesn’t occur in the name of a greater good.

What it actually means:
Every cloud has a silver lining.

This is one of my favorite Spanish sayings. I believe it’s even wiser than the first saying, and points to a belief in Spanish-speaking cultures that even if an event appears negative, trust that it happened for a reason and that life is giving you what you need now, even if it feels rough.

You can also attribute it to the belief in a greater good, a greater power.

3) Échale ganas.

Literal translation:
Insert desire.

What it actually means:
Try your best.

4) Ponte las pilas.

Literal translation:
Put your batteries on.

What it actually means:
Work hard.

5) Es mejor pedir perdón que permiso.

Literal translation is roughly the same.

What it actually means:
It’s better to apologize than to ask for permission.

Here the attitude is “you better just do what you need to do now and worry about the consequences after,” highlighting another cultural proclivity toward staying in the present moment and doing whatever is needed in that moment.

6) Despacio que tengo prisa.

Literal translation:
Slowly that I’m in a rush.

What it actually means:
Slower is faster.

This wise saying suggests that doing what you need to do slowly and thoroughly is actually a lot more productive in the long-run than rushing through things or doing them “half-way.” The timeless fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” illustrates this.

7) Más vale mal por conocido que bueno por conocer.

Literal translation:
Known evil is better than unknown good.

What it actually means:
It’s better to know the devil.

This saying suggests that known imperfection is better than idealizing a future alternative that may not be too good at all. This is a double-edged sword, however, as staying in your comfort zone can actually prevent you from better options.

8) Él que transa no avanza.

Literal translation:
He/she who deceives never advances.

What it actually means:
Deception never pays.

This rhymes smoothly only in Spanish.

9) Tirar la casa por la ventana.

Literal translation:
Throw the house out the window.

What it actually means:
Roll out the red carpet.

This saying is about splurging on special occasions, namely spending a lot of money when the situation warrants it.

10) Mandar a alguien por un tubo.

Literal translation:
Send someone through a tube.

What it actually means:
Tell them to shove it.

This is about setting limits when people don’t treat you right.

11) Quedarse con los brazos cruzados.

Literal translation:
Staying with your arms crossed.

What it actually means:
He/she froze.

This is when someone gets paralyzed and doesn’t act when they need to.

12) Caras vemos corazones no sabemos.

Literal translation:
We see faces but we don’t know hearts.

What it actually means:
Don’t judge a book by its cover.

13) Mejor solo que mal acompañado.

Literal translation:
It’s better to be alone than in bad company.

What it actually means:
It’s okay to be alone.

This saying reminds people to take care of themselves in relationships.

14) De golosos y tragones, están llenos los panteones.

Literal translation:
Cemeteries are full of greedy people.

What it actually means:
Care for others — or else.

This saying works in English but doesn’t rhyme at all.

15) Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente.

Literal translation:
A shrimp that sleeps is carried away by the current.

What it actually means:
You snooze, you lose.

Here, again, the rhyme is lost in translation.

16) Más vale un pájaro en mano que ciento uno volando.

Literal translation:
One bird in hand is better than 100 birds flying.

What it actually means:
A bird in hand is worth two in a bush.

The meaning behind this message is simple: you already have something that’s guaranteed yours, so don’t be greedy and try to grab two more that may or may not be yours.

17) Se puso hasta las chanclas.

Literal translation:
He/she put himself/herself up to the flip-flops.

What it actually means:
He/she got hammered.

18) Palabras necias, oídos sordos.

Literal translation:
Annoying words, deaf ears.

What it actually means:
If you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say anything at all.

19) Entre la espada y la pared.

Literal translation:
Between the sword and the wall.

What it actually means:
Between a rock and a hard place.

This describes a difficult situation where no matter what you do, it feels like the wrong choice.

20) Del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho.

Literal translation:
There’s a giant gap between the saying and the action.

What it actually means:
It’s easier said than done.

21) Se fue de Guatemala a Guata-peor.

Literal translation:
It went from Guatemala to Guata-worse.

What it actually means:
Things went from bad to worse.

This play on words is clearly compromised in the translation, as the original saying in Spanish uses the country Guatemala, which has the word “bad” in its last two syllables.

22) Entre broma y broma la verdad se asoma.

Literal translation:
Between jokes and jokes, the truth lurks.

What it actually means:
Jokes can reveal truths.

The beautiful rhyming in Spanish is again lost in the English translation.

Now let’s look at some funny Spanish phrases and jokes:

1) ¿Qué le dijo un pez a otro pez? Nada

Translation: What did one fish say to another? Nada.

(The word ‘Nada’ is Spanish can refer to the command to swim, or the word ‘nothing,’ in the same one-word response.)

2) Hay dos palabras que te abrirán muchas puertas: Empuje y jale.

Translation: There are two words that will open many doors for you: push and pull.

3) ¿Qué le dijo una ganza a la otra? Venganza

Translation: What did one goose say to the other? Revenge.

(If you separate the first syllable ven, meaning ‘come,’ from the next two, ganza meaning ‘goose,’ you’ll see that the joke’s answer simultaneously reads, ‘come goose’ and the word ‘revenge.’ Clearly, this joke does not work in English, so if it were translated in a movie, the subtitles wouldn’t capture it well, no matter how skilled the translator is.)

4) ¿Me cortas un pedacito de ese pastel? Qué sea chiquito porque estoy a dieta.

Can you cut a piece of that cake? But please make it small because I’m on a diet.

—¿Chiquito como los otros 7 pedacitos?

Small like the other 7 pieces?

—Sí, mi amor.

Yes, my love.

5) Se encuentran dos abogados y uno le dice al otro:

-¿Vamos a tomar algo?

-Bueno… ¿de quién?

There are two lawyers and one says to the other:

“Let’s get a drink.” (Literal meaning: let’s take something)

“Yes. From who?”

In Spanish the verb tomar (“to take” in English) is also used to mean “to drink,” so in the Spanish play or words, the lawyers are “taking a drink” and “taking something from someone” simultaneously, highlighting the cultural tendency to view lawyers as corrupt, opportunistic, and greedy.


6) “¡Te dije que me gustan las películas viejas y buenas y tú me llevaste a una película de viejas buenas!”

“I told you I liked good and old movies, but you took me to see a movie with pretty women!”

(This play on words is especially complicated. You need to be an advanced Spanish-speaker to appreciate it. This is because while vieja means ‘old,’ it also refers to a woman, and while buena usually means good, it can also mean ‘attractive’ when referring to a person.)

Now that you know these sayings, you won’t feel confused. In fact, with all of the fun information you now know, you should feel like this…

Good luck with your Spanish studies and learning the intricacies of the language and culture!

Readers, what other funny Spanish phrases, sayings, or jokes have you come across? Leave a comment and let us know!

JasonNPost Author: Jason N.
Jason N. tutors English and Spanish in Athens, GA. He majored in Spanish at UC Davis and studied Spanish Literature and Psychology at the University of Costa Rica. He is currently a PhD graduate assistant at the University of Georgia. Learn more about Jason here!  

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3 replies
  1. maruxa
    maruxa says:

    goose is ganso ( male ) or gansa ( female ) , but in American Spanis, s, z and soft c are pronunced the same , so , venganza , and ven, gansa sound the same.


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