6 Untranslatable Spanish Words and Phrases

There are some things you just won’t learn in school. Every travel blogger and their monkey’s uncle knows that getting out and exploring the world will teach you things that even 12 years of mandatory education (at least in the US) can’t. I’ve certainly been learning that ever since I arrived in Spain this past fall, and every destination along the way has held its own lesson as well.

Some of my favorite things to learn involve language. I’ve gotten lots of compliments on my Spanish here, and I truly believe that it’s due to the fact that I’m totally immersed in the language and using it every single day. I like to tell people that I’ve learned more in the nearly eight months I’ve spent in Spain than in eight years of studying Spanish at school. Not to discredit my Spanish teachers – most of them were awesome (fun fact: I actually hated my very first Spanish class freshman year of high school, but that’s a story for another post). And I’d be lying if I said those classes didn’t help me – some, like Hispanic Linguistics, did wonders in helping me get rid of my guiri accent and sound more authentic.

One of the most enjoyable parts about continuing to learn Spanish in Spain is learning words and expressions that you won’t find in your average American textbook. These are the little bits of language that you can only pick up from having a conversation with your friends in the car on the way to the beach, or by listening to your coworkers chatting in the teachers’ lounge. Drop one of these into your next Spanish conversation and you’ll sound like a pro in no time.

Note: these words and expressions are all based on peninsular (Spain) Spanish and I’m drawing particularly from my experience in Andalucia. Also, this is my first attempt at making graphics! I never claimed to be a professional. 

Eres un sol

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Literal translation: You are a sun

Used to mean: You’re the best!, you’re a dear, you’re a lifesaver

If you’re looking for a cute way to show appreciation to a friend or loved one, just tell them they’re a sun. Kind of cute and poetic in a way, if you think about it. Another similar one is “Eres un cielo” (you are a sky) – same thing.

No se ve ni torta

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Literal translation: I/you/whoever can’t see cake

Used to mean: I/you/whoever can’t see sh*t

The first person I heard use this was driving and couldn’t see because the sun was so bright. It’s basically a more polite, cutesy way of saying “I can’t see sh*t.” Because who doesn’t love cake?


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Literal translation: None!

Used to mean: A person who is always cold, gets cold easily, is sensitive to cold weather, you name it.

This is one word I wish existed in English because I am one. I’m the person shivering when everyone else feels peachy keen, and the one who feels nice and comfortable while other people are like “Ay, ¡qué calor!” and ask someone to turn off the heat. *sighs and puts on jacket*


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Literal translation: None, unless you break it down into the words sobre (about) and mesa (table)

Used to mean: The time spent conversing at the table following a meal

Spanish mealtimes are infamously long due to this reason, and I’ve grown to love it. Whereas the US has a very strong “eat and go” culture, mealtimes in Spain are special moments to be shared among family and friends – not something you rush through. After eating, be prepared to stick around for another hour or two while everyone chats – this is the one and only sobremesa.

Media naranja

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Literal translation: Half of an orange

Used to mean: Someone’s other half

Saying “other half” (in the romantic sense) in casual conversation might sound cheesy in English, but in Spanish it’s relatively common. Needless to say I was confused the first time I heard this one: a coworker asked me if I was going to visit my “media naranja” that coming weekend. Visit my half of an orange? She was asking if I had plans to visit my boyfriend, which makes a lot more sense.

Quedar frito/a

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Literal translation: To stay fried

Used to mean: To fall asleep

Because “dormirse” is just too easy. Why simply fall asleep when you can “stay fried” instead? I’ll leave you with that picture of sleeping puppies.

What are your favorite “untranslatable” words (in any language)? I’d love to know.


Author: lindseyzimmerman

I'm a marketing pro, writer and cat person from Columbus, Ohio living in southern Spain since 2015. Usually drinking manzanilla, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once).

4 thoughts

    1. Hello! I’m sorry for the late response – WordPress didn’t send me a notification for some reason. These are some of the most helpful things I’ve learned about improving my accent:

      -Some of this stuff is kind of hard to explain without IPA symbols so check this out if you’re unfamiliar with IPA: http://www.4stepstofluency.com/spanish-pronunciation/
      -The letters B, D, and G are soft consonants when they come in between vowels. At the beginning of a word they’re pronounced similarly to English, but in between vowels they’re pronounced like /β/ (almost like a V sound), /ð/ (like TH in “that”), and /ɣ/.
      -Sometimes, especially in words that end in -ado, -ido, etc. the D isn’t pronounced at all and instead the final two vowels are kind of run together. A lot of Spaniards say “Estaos Uníos” instead of “Estados Unidos.”
      -The letter S, especially when it comes at the end of the word, is dropped in informal speech a lot of the time, especially here in Andalucia. This means that the tú form of most verbs is pronounced like the third person singular.
      -J and G (when it comes before E or I) are a lot more guttural than you would think – it almost sounds like something you would hear in German.
      -It sounds really basic but knowing how to roll your R’s makes a huge difference! I had an interesting conversation with some of my coworkers who don’t speak English about what it sounds like to them, and they told me that one of the things that stands out most (especially in American English) is the R sound because it’s so different from the Spanish R.

      These are some of the most important things about accents that I never would have learned in a normal Spanish class. If you study up on linguistics a little bit before coming to Spain, it will help a lot! I know I still have some kind of an accent, but multiple Spaniards have told me I sound like I come from another European country (usually I get France or Italy) and that it’s definitely not an American-sounding accent, which I guess is good. Let me know if you have any more questions and sorry again for the late response. Suerte!

  1. Linds- I have one but you will have to find out the Spanish saying- it could be a fun topic to explore. I just switched companies (which as you are aware was a big deal…)And one of my sweet co-workers said a phrase in Spanish which translated to English as “a green parrot outside the forest is still a green parrot.” Real meaning: you will always be bright wherever you go. I could say the same to with reading about your travels, but can’t remember the Spanish phrase 🙂

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