How to Hacer

By bogotapost August 20, 2014

Oliver Pritchard explains why direct translation often causes errors

Your English teacher has probably said to you “don’t translate!”.  Students often think teachers are being difficult, but there’s a good reason not to translate.  Simply paste anything from this newspaper into Google Translate, and you’ll see why professional translators are paid a lot of money.

Certain verbs in Spanish are very difficult to translate directly.  The worst, in my opinion, is hacer.  This is often translated as make, although sometimes we use do instead.  This leads to a number of problems, because hacer is probably better translated as “a verb we use when we want to use a verb”.  That might sound strange: but it’s true.  In Spanish, it’s possible to hacer many different things, but in English we use different verbs to express these ideas.

Ganar is used with money in both languages, but in English it has a very specific meaning.  You win money on a lottery, but when we talk about work, we use earn.  If a situation improves we could use gain but it’s unlikely.  Try these words instead:

James earns a lot of money in Madrid.  
I won the lottery!  
Things worked out for me.

Usar is another problem, mainly because wear is a more appropriate verb for things like glasses, jewellery, clothes etc.  Remember, if it’s in your wardrobe, you have to wear it!

Por for-vor, no!
Por=for is very common in Spanish translations.  It is sometimes true, but remember that the word ‘for’ is very complicated in English.  We use it many different ways.  Even worse, por is used in many different ways!  These two points lead to many problems.  Por eso is a good example.  Here, por translates better as because of.

Because of this…  

In this moment
This phrase is controversial.  Some teachers say that it is always wrong, others that it’s simply not natural.  I think the second is true.  English native speakers don’t usually say this.  The problem is, I think, that ahora is not used as much in Spanish as now in English.  Now is a very common word in English to express time, as is then.  In this/that moment does sound strangely specific in English, so use now and then more!

Now I’m living in Palermo.  
I was very happy then.

Reflexive verbs
As we talked about before, we often use the passive in English to express ideas that in Spanish use reflexive verbs: me robaron is probably the most obvious example.  Spanish has many more reflexive verbs than English.  Some of these verbs look very similar.  This leads to errors such as “explain me it!”.  In English this is confusing, but it’s a direct translation of explicamelo.  To avoid this, remember to use prepositions, or simply drop the reflexive particle.

Explain it to me.  Can you explain this?  

Tienes razón
No, you don’t.  In English, you cannot say “you have reason”.  It sounds very very strange.  Instead, these phrases will probably be useful if you want to agree with someone:

You have a point.  I suppose that’s true

And finally, the easiest way to avoid all of these problems is simply not to translate.  Use the words that you have in English, not the ones you have in Spanish.  I have learnt English; Français; Deutsch; Japanese; Castellano in my life.  Translation never helped.