Literal translation of 

Portuguese popular idioms

Compiled, translated and explained by Tágide Crista

Last update: 01/2001

These idioms are used on a daily basis in Portugal. The messages they convey are, for the most part, universal, and many other cultures have their equivalents. The uniqueness of these idioms is in the way the messages are expressed. The choice of words, in many cases, exposes traces of a culture centered around farming, fishing and Catholicism. Others escape that pattern simply to display a playful choice of words. 

Translating is a hard task. Translating idioms is even harder. Here's how I do it. I try to literally translate the key words while not so literally translate the other words, so that the result still makes some sense in English. I also maintain the structure of the sentence, even when it results in grammatically incorrect English sentences. In many cases, there are ways of composing the same sentence in Portuguese that would be "better" from an academic point of view. However, the original structure of the sentences is how the people use the language, and that, by itself, defines the idiom. 

He's like a racing mackerel.
[Armar-se em carapau de corrida]

The mackerel is not exactly a noble fish. So a racing mackerel - a mackerel who's swimming faster than the others - is a person who thinks he's a big shot but, in fact, is a nobody.  

Women and sardines, you want them to be small.
[A mulher e a sardinha querem-se da mais pequenina]

Apparently, Portuguese men have an appetite for small women, as well as for small sardines. 

Head of rotten garlic.
[Cabeça d'alho xoxo]

A forgetful person. Silly!

Past waters don't power mills.
[Àguas passadas não movem moínhos.]

Mills are usually located and powered by rivers. The water that has passed the mill will not make it work again. So this means that you shouldn't worry about things of the past. 

Dog that barks doesn't bite.
[Cão que ladra não morde.]

A person who threatens by talking a lot is usually harmless, like the dogs that bark. You can also use it to mean that a person who claims to do a lot usually does very little.

From very small the cucumber is bent.
[De pequenino se torce o pepino]

This means that character traces or personal skills must be learned from a very young age. This has something to do with the curvature in the cucumber, that is supposed to exist from the cucumber's early age. I think that Portuguese cucumbers are more curved that the American ones...

It's the color of a donkey on the run.
[É cor de burro quando foge]

You say this of a color you cannot easily describe. Like, your eyes have the color of a donkey on the run. Try not to say this to your loved one...

There's a Moor on the coast...
[Há Mouro na costa...]

The Moors were the Muslim people from North Africa who lived in the Iberia Peninsula, and they were the archenemies of the catholic Portuguese (and Spanish). They were "a threat" for a number of centuries. This expression, however, has nothing to do with war. On the contrary, it is related to love. You say this when there's a person threatening to invade someone's heart.

From Spain, neither good wind nor good marriage [will come].
[De Espanha, nem bom vento nem bom casamento.]

Portugal suffers from the small-country-with-a-big-neighbor syndrome. The Spanish (from Castilla, to be precise) are the other stereotypical enemies of the good people in Portugal. Several times there were battles to either prevent them from invading the kingdom or to kick them out. We're friends now, but the echoes of the past can still be heard. 
Apparently, East winds (from Spain) bring storms. Likewise, Spanish spouses bring trouble.

This is too much sand for my truck.
[É muita areia para a minha camioneta]

This is way over my head or this is more than I can handle. I would say this, for example, of quantum mechanics.

Friends friends, business aside.
[Amigos amigos, negócios àparte]

Don't mix friendship with business. Portuguese have a funny habit of repeating words, in this case "friends, friends". If you know anyone who's Portuguese, I'm sure you've caught him/her in a typical "yes yes" or "no no".

Here they're made, here they're paid.
[Cá se fazem, cá se pagam]

If you do something wrong you'll pay for it in this lifetime and in the place where you did the wrong thing. The "they" refers to the "bad things".

Tell me with whom you hang around, I'll tell you who you are.
[Diz-me com quem andas dir-te-ei quem és]

The kind of friends you have tells a lot about the kind of person you are.

I'm in the inks.
[Estou-me nas tintas.]

I don't give a damn. Actually, I'd like to know where the hell this idiom came from... no clue!

You are here you are eating.
[Estás aqui estás a comer]

If you don't behave, I'll slap you. "To eat" is literal of "comer", which in Portuguese means both "eat"-as-of-food and being the target of physical attack - "to eat a slap".

Trust the Virgin and don't run...
[Fia-te na Virgem e nao corras...]

This is a warning in the form of an ironic negative. When someone is in trouble and does nothing to get out of trouble, he/she is trusting that the Virgin [Mary] will come up with a miracle. As opposed to be doing something to get out of trouble. So this warning means that you should do something instead of waiting for a miracle.

Go make a turn.
[Vai dar uma curva]

Buzz off!

Today is day NO for me.
[Hoje é dia não para mim]

This is not a good day, but said in a weird way. As if there are "yes days" (good, positive days) and "no days" (bad, negative days).

You're letting water in...
[Estás a meter água...]

You don't know what you're talking about or you're making a fool of yourself. This means that you're disgracing yourself, you're letting water in - like a boat that's about to sink.

Monkeys bite me...!
[Macacos me mordam...!]

You say this when you're intrigued or surprised with something. As if being bitten by a monkey would bring you back to reality.

Bad Mary...
[Mau Maria...]

This is mostly used when talking to children, when they do something they're not supposed to do. The translation looses a lot of it, because it can't capture the masculine "bad". Yes, it's supposed to be masculine "bad" followed by the female name "Maria", which, of course, is weird.

He doesn't give one for the box.
[Não dá uma p'ra caixa.]

He doesn't say or do anything right. I have no clue of where "to give [] for the box" comes from.

Don't sand me!
[Não me lixes!]

"To sand" here means to do a slight harm. So you can also say "Go sand yourself!" ( buzz off! )

God gives nuts to those who don't have teeth...
[Dá Deus nozes a quem não tem dentes...]

What a waste! You say this of a person who has a wonderful opportunity and doesn't know what to do with it.

He doesn't fuck and doesn't move away, either.
[Não fode nem sai de cima]

A pearl of popular wit! You say this of a person who is allocating resources without making good use of them. A person who can't make decisions. I know a few like that...

The more the cousin, the more you hit her.
[Quanto mais prima mais se lhe arrima]

This may be typical of my region only (Beira Alta), because many Portuguese people have told me they never heard this. But I did, many times. "Arrimar" means both to hit someone and to hit on someone. This idiom usually comes when you mention some female cousin of yours, and you're a man. Like "Dorothea is my cousin." And the person you're talking to says back, with a naughty look, "The more the cousin, the more you hit her". 

Fish don't pull wagons.
[Peixe não puxa carroça]

This is not Portuguese at all, it's Brazilian. But I love to say it, because I'm a meat eater. It truly captures the spirit of red meat...

By the yes by the no...
[Pelo sim pelo não...]

In case of doubt... or just in case...

Rays break me!
[Raios me partam!]

You say this when you're mad or intrigued about something.

If you don't put a stick on yourself...
[Se não te pões a pau...]

This is a friendly warning, something like you should watch out or else... "Putting a stick on yourself" captures the bodily movement of standing straight, like a stick. 

Donkey's voices don't reach the heavens.
[Vozes de burro não chegam aos céus]

A "donkey" is dumb person. This idiom means that whatever is being said is stupid and dumb and you don't care, because you're in a much higher level - in heaven, to be precise. 

Old donkey doesn't learn languages.
[Burro velho não aprende línguas]

If a "donkey" is dumb person, an old donkey is even dumber. So he can't learn anything new, like languages. People say this about themselves, as excuse to not wanting to learn something new.

In a house where there's no bread, everyone shouts and no one is right.
[Em casa onde não há pão, todos berram e ninguém tem razão]

This means that when the essential goods are missing, people get upset, argue with each other for whatever reasons, and no one makes sense. The root of the problem is the lack of those essential goods.

At night all cats are gray.
[De noite todos os gatos são pardos]

At night, you can't distinguish objects and people too well. It's easy to make mistakes.

There's no beauty without an if.
[Não há bela sem senão]

There's no such thing as perfection. "if" (senão) is used here as a noun to express the strings attached to any good thing, the conditions without which such beauty can't exist.

Anyone who has an asshole has fear.
[Quem tem cu tem medo]

It's ok to be afraid - we're all afraid at some point, we're all humans. The interesting thing is the association between having the asshole and being afraid. I guess this refers to the fear of being raped and sodomized. If you didn't have the asshole such act wouldn't be possible!

You can find an extensive list of Portuguese popular expressions, in Portuguese, at Carlos Pinto-Pereira's world.

© Copyright 1994 - 2001 by Cristina Videira Lopes. All rights reserved.
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