That’s incredible! Er, wait, no, it’s terrible!

Here’s one of my favorite Spanish-English mistranslation stories. It comes to us from Ruben, one of my colleagues at the high school I taught at in Bogotá. He and his wife, Nancy (my former boss), had just returned to Colombia after living in North Carolina for six years with their two daughters. They both spoke magnificent English, but they did make tiny mistakes here and there. Once when they were in North Carolina, he was at a department store. As the cashier was scanning his items, his two daughters ran up to him, saying, “Dad! Dad! There are some people who are stealing stuff from the store by ripping off the price tags!” He then responded, “Oh my gosh! That’s incredible!” Naturally, the cashier’s jaw dropped. He might as well have said, “Wow! That’s awesome! Let’s go join them!”, seeing as that’s how the cashier understood it. When he saw her aghast face, he quickly realized his gaffe. Beet red, he fumbled to explain that it was a mistranslation, that increíble means something else in Spanish, that he was not a native English speaker. Uh huh. He certainly looked quite “American,” and, as I said, his English was stellar. It was a real foot-in-mouth moment that made him want to die. Fortunately for me, I got a real kick out of it and learned something useful de pasoIncreíble doesn’t always translate to “incredible”! Incredible, right? Depends on how you mean it.

Most of the time, they do mean the same thing. That is, in Spanish, just as in English, it usually means astonishing, marvelous, amazing, en fin. Impresionante, extraordinario, genial. “The Incredibles” movie was Los increíbles. “The Incredible Hulk” was El increíble Hulk. No surprise there.

Muchos opinan que Google es una empresa increíble.

Many people think that Google is an incredible company.

Te invitamos a conocer y ser parte de esta increíble ciudad que te espera con juegos, retos y muchos premios. 

We invite you to know and be part of this incredible city that awaits you with games, challenges, and many prizes. (This comes from the spam folder in my email– see, even spam can teach you useful Spanish if you let it!)

“Incredible” has another side to it, though, a definition we forget to our Spanish-English translating peril:  So implausible as to elicit disbelief; unbelievable. You know, in- credible. Not credible. It’s in the dictionary all right, but if I had a nickel for every time I’ve ever heard it used that way . . . I’d be flat nickelless. It is often used this way in Spanish, though, and that’s what Ruben meant when he said that the stealing was increíble. Unbelievable. Not to be believed. Defying belief. Shocking, even. If the cashier had been bilingual, she surely would have cut him some slack. I mean, come on. What crook is really going to be that daft?

You know how you’ll see news headlines under categories like Strange But True or News of the Weird? In Spanish, they say Increíble pero cierto. Hard to believe but true. Not Wonderful but true– as if we were all a bunch of glass-half-empty cynics who refused to believe there could be any positive news out there.

@DiegoMorita Me parece increíble escuchar a alguien decir: colaboremen, demen, sientensen y mucho más si ese alguien es comunicador.#PenaAjena (I find it unbelievable/shocking when I hear someone say “colaboremen,” “demen,” “sientensen,” and especially if that someone is a PR person.)

@paty1978 Creo que ir a Santa Fe jamás estará en mis planes, ni por chamba, me parece increíble que tanta gente trabaje allá y sea tan difícil llegar! (I don’t think that going to Santa Fe will ever be in my plans, not even for work. I think it’s just unbelievable that so many people work out there and it’s so difficult to get there!)

¡Es increíble cuánto te amo!

It’s just mind-boggling how much I love you! (Loose translation. You could also say, “It’s incredible,” but it misses something, don’t you think?)

You just have to use context. If it’s something that sounds negative or that the person is struggling to wrap their mind around, “unbelievable” would probably be the best way to understand/translate increíble. I always appreciate it when Spanish helps draw out and accentuate certain nuances in English words that we tend to overlook. Yes, if I write, “I am so grateful to have known such an incredible person as you.” (which I have written), I am saying that you are exemplary. A knowledge of Spanish, however, evokes an essential meaning that underlies that word even without me consciously realizing it– your goodness is almost not to be believed. It’s inconceivable. It’s staggering. It’s marvelous, it’s astonishing, it’s amazing. Es increíble, ¿no?

_________________________________________________ Non-natives, what’s your experience with the usage of this word? Had you thought about the different nuances in Spanish before? How have you heard it used? Where? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? 


6 responses to “That’s incredible! Er, wait, no, it’s terrible!

  1. Thai had a similar word, sudyod, which literally means to the highest point, but is used like we would use awesome or incredible as in that is “to the highest point” of greatness. During 9/11 I also found out it could be used in the negative as well when someone told me that watching the two towers fall was sudyod. It was to the highest point of sadness in this case.


    • How interesting. Thanks for sharing. Yes, it’s neat to step back and realize that adjectives such as wonder-ful, amaze-ing, in-credible, awe-some… all suggest that something is unbelievable, seemingly more illusion than fact. In usage, however, they just mean that something is very, very good.


  2. ¡Increíble! No sabía que puede usar increíble así. Que interesante.


  3. I hadn’t really thought about the connotations of “increíble”. So cool. Reminds me, though not directly, of “ojalá”. That one is also hard to translate.


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