A word is enough to the wise

By Susana Domínguez, Project Manager at Nóvalo.

It was difficult to choose the subject for my second post. At first, I was not inspired at all but finally it occurred to me that it could be funny to talk about some subject related to colloquial language. As this field embraces a big variety of themes, I would like to mainly focus on proverbs, although maybe I include some set phase deliberately.

Proverbs or sayings are short sentences, normally by an unknown author, that point out the correct approach you must adopt in each situation. They also define a given behavior or explain the consequences derived from a circumstance. Anyway, they always involve an educational and instructive purpose and turn the human anecdote into reflection.

Mostly proverbs are remarks collected through collective experience over time and the themes are incredibly varied. They represent the cultural heritage of a community when oral tradition transferred the popular knowledge from one generation to the next.

Idioms, set phrases and proverbs constitute one of the biggest problems when learning a second language and they suppose an important obstacle in translation. For this reason I would like to briefly set out in this post the main problems encountered when translating this kind of expressions. However, I will especially focus on proverbs, as I mentioned before.

The theme of this post does not seem very important, particularly when we work with scientific & technical texts or legal & economic documents. The use of proverbs in these texts is not very common, however you can always find some set phrases or idioms (but I will not go into this topic, maybe a brave workmate want to do it in a future post). By contrast, these expressions will mean an important element in more colloquial texts. Furthermore, I think this is an interesting topic which can be both useful and funny.

In many cases there is a big similarity between English and Spanish sayings. I propose you some examples below:

A cat in gloves catches no mice > Gato con guantes no caza ratones

Don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth > A caballo regalado no le mires el dentado

All griefs with bread are less > Las penas con pan son menos

All that glitters is not gold > No es oro todo lo que reluce

All roads lead to Rome > Todos los caminos conducen a Roma

Barking dogs never bite > Perro ladrador, poco mordedor

In these examples the cultural influence is the same in both languages. However, there are many other cases in which such cultural influence slightly differs. In English, for example, a cat gains two lives as an English says “a cat has nine lives” while a Spanish states “siete vidas tiene un gato”. Furthermore in English “a leopard can’t change its spots” but in Spanish it is the fox that loses the hair but not the wiles (“el zorro pierde el pelo pero no las mañas”). If an English wants to refer to a shady matter and says “it smells a rat” to a Spanish speaker, the Spanish will correct him and he would say that it is a cat what is hiding something (“aquí hay gato encerrado”). If we want to express that nobody must entrust the management of his own business to inexperienced or incompetent people, an English would say “sleep with dogs and you will get up with fleas” while a Spanish will state “quien se acuesta con niños, amanece mojado”. And if we want to get a proverb example with some geographic influence, an English will say “Rome wasn’t built in a day” while a Spanish will exclaim “no se ganó Zamora en una hora”.

Sometimes the expressions are clear or plain, its meaning is easily understood and an equivalence can be easily found on Internet. For example:

It’s raining cats and dogs > Llueve a cántaros

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know > Más vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer

Don’t bite more than you can chew > El que mucho abarca, poco aprieta

The early bird catches the worm > A quien madruga, Dios ayuda

The shoemaker’s son always goes barefoot > En casa de herrero, cuchillo de palo

Other times the differences are bigger and it’s more complicated to find an equivalence in the other language. Let’s see the following examples:

The grass is always greener on the other side > Gusta lo ajeno, más por ajeno que por bueno

In for a penny, in for a pound > De perdidos al río (this is quite apart from the incorrect literal translation “en un centavo, en una libra”, huh?)

When in Rome, do as the Romans do > Donde fueres haz lo que vieres

Like father, like son ( or Chip off the old block) > De tal palo, tal astilla (or De tal simiente, tal gente)

Birds of a feather flock together > Dios los cría y ellos se juntan

A stitch in time saves nine (or An apple a day keeps the doctor away, Better safe than sorry) > Más vale prevenir que curar

Finally we can share a few laughs with the “wonderful” equivalences that Google Translator offer to us and we can demonstrate that our profession is crucial.

English Spanish (Google) Correct translation
What can’t be cured must be endured Lo que no se puede curar debe ser soportado A mal tiempo, buena cara
The squeaking wheel gets the grease La rueda chirriante obtiene la grasa Quien no llora, no mama
April weather, rain and sunshine, both together Abril el clima, la lluvia y el sol, los dos juntos En abril, aguas mil
God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb Dios templa el viento al cordero esquilado Dios aprieta, pero no ahoga


In this entry I have simply shown a little sample of the thousands of sayings we can find in English and Spanish. And, of course, in most cases there are several synonymous proverbs.

Lastly, I encourage you to find some other equivalences and I propose you some useful references:






I would like to highlight the Centro Virtual Cervantes website. Refranario multilingüe tool is very useful to find proverb equivalences in several languages.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and you have learnt something new. Please feel free to share some interesting example or some example you like.

See you soon!

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