When an idiom, saying, proverb or ready-made expression is translated into another language and, because of differences of the languages, some of the original meaning is lost. Due to the original meaning can not be perfectly translated into the other language. So you have to rephrase or say what you mean in a totally different way.
The common and very familiar Spanish expression “contigo pan y cebolla” is used in Spain in a humoristic way to let your partner know “how deep is your love” but means literally “with you bread and onions“. The fact that a couple may not have a lot of money is not an obstacle for them to get married and live a happy life as long as they love each other. The idea of “contigo pan y cebolla” may be expressed in English with expressions like: with you through thick and thin, against all odds; If I am with you I do not need anything else; I’ll forbear any burden in life being with you. Although not any of those has the accurate meaning of the Spanish expression.
By and large we express what we mean with the help of proverbs, sayings or ready-made phrases, We often have the tendency to translate them word-for-word in the middle of the conversation with a foreign friend and without us being actually aware of it. That, instead of clarify the meaning, has an opposite effect. People who do that “no tiene dos dedos de frente” (literally: Not having two fingers of forehead, but it is used as: He/She is not smart) because you can make a big mistake or make a tactless remark: “meter la pata” (you can make a bit of a blunder).
Normally these remarks are innocent and never intentional, but can nevertheless lead to embarrassing and tense situations, and sometimes may even have some unpleasant consequences. More often than not, however, these type of mistakes and inappropriate comments have no major consequences and with time become funny anecdotes. Conversely, your interlocutor may think that you “estas como una cabra”. This is another commonly used Spanish idiom for when somebody is doing something bizarre or a little out of the ordinary. The literal translation is “to be like a goat” and the English equivalent is saying someone is a little nuts or crazy. So if you translate to a foreign friend Spanish expressions literally, you might say: “tu estás como una cabra.” (you are a little crazy.) Or They might think you are “corto de luces” literally, “short of lights,” in English “not the brightest bulb on the tree.” In this site you can find 100 ways to say “not the brightest bulb on the tree.”
Those phrases, idioms or ready-made expressions, which, taken out of their original context, or to the ears of a foreigner, sound so very bizarre. When you think carefully about the words that make up these idioms, you realize there is a major leap from the literal meaning to the figurative meaning, and that’s where it gets funny.
On the other hand, people use them on a daily basis, but often don’t know about their origins. They may not stop to reflect on some of the expressions that come out of their mouth, but to other people, some of these idioms can be truly shocking. For instance “Estar en Babia” (to be in Babia) means “to be distracted or inattentive”, but where this expression comes from back in the Middle Ages, when León was a kingdom, the royal family lived in their palace in the city of León, but they used to come to Babia to hunt and fish. And when people requested an audience with the king, the chamberlain used to say he was in Babia, he was away of the bustle and noise of the city, he was absent, missing ….In Spain “to be in Babia” means having your mind in one place and your body in another.
But to learn a language is better “no tener pelos en la lengua” “not to have hairs on your tongue”, meaning that someone is a straight shooter and will always speak their mind. And don’t “Tomar el pelo” (to take the hair) to your teacher, used when someone is tricking or making fun of someone else, but in a good-natured way: to pull your teacher’s leg.
Resources for Learning Spanish Idioms
9 ridiculously useful Spanish expressions: Great post that also includes embedded sound files.