Common mistakes in Spanish and English

Nov 4, 2011 by

I work in a Barcelona office where the two official languages are Spanish and English, but on a daily basis I’m also surrounded by French, German, Italian, Dutch and Catalan. Not to mention the odd Portuguese or Polish conversation in the background. This leaning tower of Babel is tilted spectacularly over my head, as I’m responsible for all copy and content for the company in most of these languages. (Including the ones I don’t speak.) It’s an incredible environment for anyone interested in language, or indeed humanity. I’m struck every day by new ways of saying things and of apprehending reality as a result.

However. The downside of working alongside a bunch of people from myriad countries is that inevitably an anodyne, ‘lite’, internationalised version of the language emerges. The English and Spanish that I hear in the office are for the most part spoken by non-natives in dialogue with other non-natives. Today, for example, I went out to lunch with an Italian colleague and we spoke in Spanish the whole time. This can be cool…but it can also lead to the perpetuation of the same old time-worn errors being trotted out again and again. Till they’re immersed in your subconscious and you think they’re actually valid.

This worries me. For the sake of my future fluency in both languages.

So in an attempt to stave off the insidious fraying round the edges, I’ve decided to publish this post, with some of the typical mistakes I hear frequently in both languages. I plan to update it as I go along. Hope you find it useful:)

Mistakes from Spanish into English

Original phrase Wrong version Correct translation
¿Cómo se llama? How is it/she/he called? What is it/she/he called?
¿Cómo es? How is it? What’s it like?
Somos cinco. We’re five. There are five of us.
Aquí tienes. Here you have. Here you go (when you hand someone something).
Dime algo. Tell me something. Let me know.
¡Besos! Kisses! Cheers!
¿Se come bien ahí? Do you eat properly there? Is the food good there?
Un barrio turístico. A touristic area. A very touristy area.
Se lo expliqué. I explained it him. I explained it to him.
Sufrió tres abortos. She had three abortions. She had three miscarriages (cuidado – hay una gran diferencia!)
Les puse en copia (del email). I put them in copy (of the email). I copied them in (to the email).
Llegué al aeropuerto/Barcelona/pueblo. I arrived to the airport/Barcelona/the town. I arrived AT the airport/IN Barcelona/IN the town. (Ojo, nunca puedes decir ‘arrived to’ en inglés).
A mí me pasó que no encontré mis llaves. It happened to me that I couldn’t find my keys. What happened was that I couldn’t find my keys, (o simplemente), I couldn’t find my keys.
Te invito (a tomar algo, por ejemplo). I invite you. (La otra persona se queda pensando ‘¿A dónde?’) It’s on me/It’s my treat.
Estoy pensando ir a… I’m thinking to go to… I’m thinking of going to… (nunca es posible en inglés decir ‘thinking to…’)

Mistakes from English into Spanish

Original phrase Wrong version Correct translation
Let me know. Déjame saber. Dime algo/avísame/ya me dirás.
I lived with my boyfriend of five years. Vivía con mi novio de cinco años. (I lived with my boyfriend, who was five.) Vivía con mi novio, con quien llevaba cinco años.
What’s the plan/problema/date? ¿Qué es el plan/problema/fecha? ¿Cuál es el plan/problema/fecha?
Actually, I’d quite like to… Actualmente, me gustaría… De hecho/la verdad es que me gustaría…(‘actualmente’ means ‘currently’ in Spanish)
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  1. I’m sure I remember you saying how certain texts had ended with besos which were kisses. I remember as I distinctly remember rolling my eyes skyward at the time.

  2. Yeah, it literally means kisses and they use it a lot here. Complete strangers email me and put ‘besos!’ at the end of the message. When they go into English they sometimes put ‘kisses!’ as a direct translation. I think we would just say cheers here, in the UK. We’re really not that touchy-feely with complete strangers.

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