Tener Mano Izquierda and Other Untranslatable Spanish Words and Phrases


Today I was talking to a Spanish friend about parenting, and I said “Hay que tener mucha mano izquierda”. He asked how you directly translate Tener mano izquierda in English and I said… I don’t know!

Tener mano izquierda means to handle a difficult situation, or person, with skill, astutely, in a clever, wily, roundabout way. If a child doesn’t want to do something and just telling them to do it doesn’t work, then maybe you can come up with a clever, roundabout way of getting them to do what you want. That is to “Tener mano izquierda” and there is no direct translation!

Below is a list of a few of our favourite real Spanish words or phrases that have no simple, direct translation in English, do you know any more?

Estrenar – To use something or wear something for the first time, e.g. “estrenar un coche” – to drive a new car for the first time, or “estrenar un vestido nuevo” – to wear a new dress for the first time.

Madrugar – to get up very early in the morning. “Hoy he madrugado mucho para estudiar antes de ir a trabajar” – today I got up really early to study before going to work.

La sobremesa – time after a meal spent sitting around the table chatting, often for a very long time. “Después de la comida tuvimos una sobremesa fantástica” – after the meal we had a fantastic time sitting around chatting.

Un ligón – somebody who is always flirting with others or getting dates all the time. “Cuidado con ese chico, es un ligón” – watch out for that guy, he’s a real flirt.

Empalagoso – food that is ridiculously rich and sweet. “Esta tarta es demasiado empalagosa para mi, no puedo con ella” – that cake is too ridiculously sweet for me, I can’t deal with it.

Desfogarse – To let out all your energies, to let off steam by running around a lot, e.g. “Los niños tienen que desfogarse un poquito, diles que vayan al jardín un ratito” – the kids need to let off a bit of steam, tell them to go out to the garden for a while.

Futbolísticamente – used in post-match analysis or the football press, meaning ‘in footballing terms’, e.g. “futbolísticamente hablando, no hay nada perfecto” – in footballing terms, nothing is perfect.

Un tuerto – A one-eyed person. There is a typical Spanish phrase, “Un tuerto es rey en el país de los ciegos”, which literally translates as ‘a one-eyed man is king in the country of the blind’, and means that someone that doesn’t know much about something still looks very clever when surrounded by people that know even less! Sometimes used ironically when someone is trying to be clever but clearly doesn’t know very much.

Trasnochar – To stay up all night, for example partying or studying, and not go to bed until the next day. “He trasnochado cuando tenia que haberme ido a la cama pronto” – I stayed up all night when I should have gone to bed early.

Remember, our Spanish audios and worksheets are full of Real Spanish like this, it’s our speciality!

43 thoughts on “Tener Mano Izquierda and Other Untranslatable Spanish Words and Phrases

        1. Ben Post author

          Creo que Audrey tiene razón, handle with kid gloves es un poco distinto, quiere decir hacer algo con mucho cuidado o tacto. Tener mano izquierda a veces tiene que ver con tacto, pero es algo mas también.

  1. Lydia

    “Un tuerto es rey en el país de los ciegos”: in Dutch, we have the exact same expression:
    “In het land der blinden is eenoog koning” (in the land of the blind, one-eye is king)
    Funny, no? 🙂

      1. Joy

        Ben y Lydia – sorry not to write all this in Spanish.
        British English has the exact same expression also!:
        ‘In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ (How about woman/queen?!)
        And I believe several other languages too, including Italian and German.

        Reference.com says the expression is attributed to Erasmus (‘Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 16th-century Dutch Renaissance humanist…social critic, Catholic priest, teacher and theologian.’)
        But other sources say Erasmus was inspired by an earlier quote in C4th/5th Rabbanic literature, translating as:
        “In the street of the blind, the one eyed man is called the Guiding Light”.
        So it sounds like perhaps the Dutch was the origin of the spread of this idiom within Europe, but it began elsewhere much earlier.

        Muchas gracias for this interesting article and posts!

        1. Ben Post author

          Thanks Joy for all the extra info! It’s amazing how phrases can be traced so far back! I imagine someone just said it somewhere out of the blue once and someone else thought ‘I like that, I’ll use it again!’ and thus a vernacular phrase is born!

  2. A. Cowal

    Fyi, Estrenar already implies that it’s new and/or that you’re using it for the first time, so saying “Estrenar el coche nuevo” is a redundancy. It’s just “Estrenar el coche”.

      1. Joy

        Hola, Ben y A. Cowal,
        Perhaps in some situations, depending on what’s known to the listeners, ‘nuevo’ wouldn’t be redundant, and could even be needed for clarity…?

        For example, perhaps even if you’re wearing/trying out (or releasing or performing etc.) something for the first time, but it’s not clear whether you’ve only recently acquired it, or have had it in the cupboard (or garage, back of your mind, etc!) for ages…
        (Eg New car, or you’ve had your old car fixed after months of it being off the road – but that may not be the best example…!)

        It would be great to hear whether using ‘nuevo’ would generally sound strange or wrong to a native speaker.
        In English including ‘new’ is more usual, isn’t it – ‘I’m trying out our new car for the first time’, ‘He’s trying out/wearing his new shoes for the first time.’

        This eg from wordreference.com does use ‘nuevo’ (although not ‘new’ in the translation):
        ‘La compañía de teatro estrenará la nueva obra la semana que viene.
        = The theatre company will perform the work for the first time next week.’
        Perhaps in this context to distinguish between a newly-written play, and one that’s just new to their repertoire? Or simply to express that it’s the next play they’re performing?


        1. Ben Post author

          I double checked with Marina about this. We had a friend that did actually say ‘hoy estreno el coche nuevo’ and Marina says that it’s OK, but yes, redundant and doesn’t sound perfect.

  3. Lesley Hedges

    I love sayings that illustrate the history of a place where they developed. Could we have more please. An English example is ‘on tenterhooks’ from our textile industry where cloth was stretched to dry bleach in the sun.

      1. John

        A long time ago I came across a phrase ‘en vilo’ that I put in my database with the translation ‘on tenterhooks’. Researching this a bit further on SpanishDict.com I find it literally means ‘suspended in the air’ but there is also an example given ‘ estar o quedar en vilo’ or ‘estar con el alma en vilo’ with meaning ‘to be left in suspense; be on tenterhooks’. So the Spanish phrase appears to have the same literal and figurative meanings as the English! I wonder if the meanings travelled in translation or developed independently in both countries?

  4. Marce

    Trasnochar aquí en mi región italiana (Veneto) se dice “fare un dritto” es decir como tirar recto adelante

  5. Joyce A

    Thank you! These are great fun.

    How about “amanecer”? ¿Cómo amaneciste? (Literally, ‘how did you wake up? but meaning something like: ‘Good morning. Did you sleep well?)

    I like ‘tener mano izquierda.” Perhaps its meaning is close to ‘use reverse psychology’…

    1. Ben Post author

      Amanecer is a great one, and yes, reverse psychology is definitely involved in the mano izquierda equation!

  6. Eugenia

    There is one more word for your list: desaprincesar. It means to make a fastidious person (a una princesa o a un princeso) more simple.

  7. Gary

    Pienso que estrenar puede ser “to break in” en inglés?
    “In the land of the blind…” Comes from Erasmus, who was Dutch

    1. Ben Post author

      I think to break in isn’t quite right, it’s more about the emphasis being on ‘the first time’ something is used or seen etc. Thanks for solving the ‘land of the blind’ mystery!

      1. Gary

        Ok, what about ‘to christen’ for ‘estrenar’. It is a bit arch but fairly common in Britain when talking about things like a new sofa- though there may be an element of double entendre here! Por cierto como decir ‘double entendre’ en español?

  8. Ann Marie

    Hey Ben, this was fun reading, thank you. I’m wondering if “tener mano izquierda” might refer to having a little “black magic”- the term “left hand path” is used to describe the occult. It seems to fit.

    1. Gary

      The word for left in many languages has the same root as sinister. And right is connected with righteousness and with law (derecha/droit/destra).

  9. Rob Smith

    Been thinking hard about this one. Best English translation I can come up with is “to have a trick up your sleeve” no doubt it doesn’t quite fit

  10. Rob Smith

    Been thinking hard about this one. Best English translation I can come up with is “to have a trick up your sleeve” no doubt it doesn’t quite fit!

  11. Valerie Jeffrey

    We don’t have an English word for a friolero or friolera – a person who feels the cold. Nor for un manco – one armed man. The cathedral in Malaga is referred to as La Manca because it has only one tower and looks asymmetrical. And politically incorrect as it may seem we can refer to a person with a limp as un cojo.

  12. John Bentley

    Futbolisticamente – ¿Lo dice en serio? Hola Ben, hola Marina. ¿Qué tal? Compré las hojas de trabajo hace varios años. Todavía escucho a los podcasts con regularidad y mi español ha mejorado considerablemente. Son geniales, simplemente el mejor para citar a Whitney Houston. Buena suerte y hasta luego.

  13. John Bentley

    And one other thing – these words and phrases are going straight into my Anki “Notes in Spanish” deck so that I don’t forget them.

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