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This past Thursday I posted an English-to-Spanish translation challenge made up of native sentences. Here is an excerpt:

I got the photography bug a few months ago, when my friend Carmen (who is a real photographer) asked me to hold her camera for a second while she rummaged through her bag trying to find one of her telephoto lenses.

Native sentences are typically longer than 20 words, they combine multiple ideas, and they’re full of idiomatic expressions and other descriptive words.

Classroom sentences on the other hand, are short, simple and unconnected:

I like photography. Carmen is a professional photographer. I hold her camera. She looks for something in her bag.

One of the reasons you might be stuck in intermediate purgatory is that you’re spending too much time working with classroom sentences instead of focusing all your energy on mastering native sentences.

When you’re a total beginner it makes sense to work with simplified sentences because they make it easier to grasp the core concepts of the language, but once you reach an intermediate level, you should be spending the lion’s share of your time playing at the advanced level. It’s the only way to become really fluent.

This article is a guide for how you might go about translating a native sentence like the one above. I hope it motivates to take on last week’s challenge in full force.

We’ll start by breaking down the sentence into easily digestible pieces, identifying the problematic areas, and working through them one by one.

Let’s assume that these six things are the ones that give you trouble:

I got the photography bug a few months ago.

My friend Carmen (who is a real photographer).

It happened when she asked me to hold her camera for a second.

She rummaged through her bag trying to find one of her telephoto lenses.

An idiomatic expression like the photography bug can probably be used for other things besides photography, so let’s only look up “bug”. We can use the excellent Collins English-to-Spanish dictionary.

That last one seems to be what we were looking for. By looking at the pronouns and the prepositions, we can generalize it to picarle a alguien el gusanillo de algo”. Googling a bit more shows that picar, entrar and venir are valid options:

Me picó el gusanillo de la fotografía…

Me entró el gusanillo de la fotografía…

Me vino el gusanillo de la fotografía…

The relative pronoun who can be confusing because sometimes it’s translated as que and other times as quien. Explaining that difference deserves its own post, but for sentence structures like that we can probably rely on Google Translate:

Google Translate is like that annoying kid in class who always thinks he knows the answer but gets it wrong half of the time. Never take anything you see here for granted. In fact, your Spanish Spider Sense should be tingling for two reasons:

  • gusanillo is not an error (unless you assume that gusano = worm = bug = error)
  • Carmen is a woman, so it should be una amiga and una verdadera fotógrafa.

Everything else seems to be right, but is it really que es una verdadera fotógrafa” or quien es una verdadera fotógrafa”?

Let’s see if we can find that exact usage somewhere. Since it’s a specific combination of words, we can get more relevant results by googling them using “double quotes”. Furthermore, instead of relying on plain Google, we can use Google Books to find a more reliable source.

Unfortunately, not all books in Google Books are reliable sources (the second book in this image is full of mistakes) so it’s best to stick with famous authors like Elvira Lindo (by the way, she writes awesome children’s novels that I wholeheartedly recommend for native Spanish reading practice).

That’s 10,500 results for mi amigo que es and only 252 for mi amigo quien es. If you look closely, you’ll realize that most of the quien results are actually for quién (…mi amigo. —¿Quién es…?), so que wins.

You might have noticed I searched for amigo instead of amiga. I did this because I wasn’t getting enough results with amiga. When this happens to you, consider generalizing the query by changing masculine to feminine, or plural to singular.

If you’re not sure if “a real photographer” should be translated as “una verdadera fotógrafa”, you can also check Reverso Context to find sentences that contain those words:

That first example seems to be spot on: Soy una fotógrafa, papa. Una verdadera fotógrafa.. Reverso Context gets a lot of its sentences from user-contributed subtitles, so you’ll often come across mistakes. If something looks weird to you, look it up somewhere else.

Let’s see what the Collins brings up for hold:

That’s pretty close, but we’re actually looking for a verb, not a noun. If you scroll down a bit, you’ll see this:

That’s more like it. All of these would be valid options: sujetar, tener, coger (agarrar outside of Spain), sostener.

Okay, we found the right verb, but what tense should we use?

Let’s google another “exact match”, but this time we’ll add a wildcard (*) for the second verb:

It seems like there are two valid options: me pidió sujetar (infinitive) and me pidió que sujetara (subjunctive). We’re trying to get better at advanced Spanish, so let’s go with the subjunctive. Also, since we’re talking about her camera, we can get extra-native and add the indirect object pronoun:

…me pidió que le sujetara su cámara…

Looking up “rummage around” in the Collins doesn’t bring up anything. WordReference is usually pretty good with expressions, so let’s try it:

The example sentence is almost exactly what we need: “Rebusqué en mi bolso para encontrar un bolígrafo” (notice the prepositions)

Ella rebuscaba en su bolsa intentando encontrar…

Technical terms like telephoto lens or anything worthy of a Wikipedia page, should be looked up in Wikipedia. Once you’re there, look for the Español link at the bottom of the left sidebar:

We found our answer: teleobjetivo.

…uno de sus teleobjetivos.

The final translation could look something like this:

Me picó el gusanillo de la fotografía hace unos meses, cuando mi amiga Carmen (que es una fotógrafa de verdad) me pidió que le sujetara la cámara un segundo mientras rebuscaba en su bolsa intentando encontrar uno de sus teleobjetivos.
I got the photography bug a few months ago, when my friend Carmen (who is a real photographer) asked me to hold her camera for a second while she rummaged through her bag trying to find one of her telephoto lenses.

Read it one more time before you submit

Once you have a final draft, do yourself a favor and read the whole thing over one more time. You can improvise all you want when you’re in a live conversation, but your Spanish practice sessions should be all about deliberate effort. If you give it your best attempt, you will remember native corrections better because your mind won’t be able to cop out by saying “I would have caught that if I had paid more attention.”

After you get native feedback (ask a friend or use lang-8), take the correct version and internalize it using the scaffold technique.

Spanish takeaways

Translating native sentences takes more time and energy than working with their classroom counterparts, but it helps you learn much faster.

By putting in the effort to look up words and unfamiliar expressions, you will become emotionally invested, which will make it easier to remember the answers.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the fastest way towards fluid live conversations goes through slow and deliberate practice sessions. Once you have those hours under your belt

Now I want to hear from you. What is your biggest struggle when you try to translate your thoughts into Spanish? Let me know in the comments.

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