“Can you please explain how to translate ‘get’ into Spanish for active and passive causative sentences?” – Real Fast Spanish Subscriber.
If you want to translate sentences like ‘he got me a book’, ‘I got my hair cut’, or ‘that will get done soon’, you need to start by shifting the way you think about these sentences in English to make the translation into Spanish a lot easier.
In this article, you’ll learn how to translate ‘get’ into Spanish and two very important meta-skills to help with thinking in Spanish.
Thinking in Spanish (verbs like ‘get’) – Skill 1 – Substitute
Last week, I wrote an article about the mental side of improving your Spanish thinking.
In summary, the 3 steps I discussed were:
- Try to let go of the need to find exact word-for-word translations.
- Ask better questions (‘how’ questions more than ‘why’ questions) to help you absorb the concepts more effectively.
- Continue to build your knowledge of the language.
In this article, we’ll look at two more skills related to steps 1 and 3.
And, we’ll do this through the lens of the English verb ‘to get’.
The verb ‘to get’ is really troublesome for students learning English because we use it in many different contexts.
Therefore, when we translate a phrase with ‘get’ into Spanish, to get the job done, we’ll need to think carefully about the meaning of ‘get’ in the phrase. And, then consider other English verbs with a similar meaning that often are much easier to translate.
So, the first skill you’ll need is the ability to substitute an English verb in your English sentence before you translate it into Spanish, specifically with verbs such as ‘get’.
English: I get it.
Colloquially, we can use ‘get’ when we want to say we ‘understand’ something.
But, if we try to translate this sentence word-for-word into Spanish, we’ll get into trouble.
Since the direct translation of ‘get’ in Spanish is ‘conseguir’, we get the following:
English: I get it.
Lo consigo. ⊗
But, this doesn’t make sense in the context of ‘understanding’ in Spanish. So, we need to search for an alternative English sentence first before we translate it.
I get it → I understand it.
Now, this will be much easier to translate into Spanish:
English: I understand it.
Spanish: Lo entiendo.
So, we need to think carefully about what ‘get’ means in our starting sentence and then find another verb in English that can convey the same meaning. After that, the translation should be a much more straightforward process.
The second skill you’ll need to translate ‘get’ into Spanish is a knowledge of different grammar structures and how to translate them.
Let’s look at this next…
Thinking in Spanish (verbs like ‘get’) – Skill 2 – Notice grammar structures
“He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
English natives around the world often say that they never studied English grammar in school. This is because most English-speaking countries around the world removed grammar from the school curriculum in the early to mid 20th century.
The argument goes that we don’t need to know English grammar to speak the language well. And, there is some truth in this!
But, when it comes time to learn a second language as an adult, knowing how the grammar works in English can be extremely helpful for learning how the grammar works in another language.
For example, there are 5 grammar forms in English for the verb ‘get’:
- Transitive verb (with a noun).
- Intransitive verb (with an adjective or adverb).
- As part of a phrasal verb.
- In colloquial expressions.
- To form active and passive causative sentences.
And, the challenge as Spanish students is knowing how each of these forms affects the way we need to translate ‘get’ into Spanish.
I’m going to go through each of these in more detail below.
But, in short, options 1, 2 and 3 will most often require a substitution with a different English verb to make the translation to Spanish easier.
For option 4, colloquial expressions, we generally can’t translate the expression and need to look for an entirely different way of expressing an idea.
And, with option 5, active and passive causative sentences, to translate these, we first need to notice when they occur so that we can apply the appropriate active and passive structures in Spanish. This often means we’ll require a sentence using the pronoun se.
But, let’s go through each of these options one by one…
‘Get’ as a transitive verb
In English, when we use a noun with ‘get’, there are 3 possible meanings that are all easier to translate with a verb substitution.
With the examples below, try to think of a different English verb you could use instead of ‘get’ before you see the substitutions I’ll use to translate the sentences into Spanish.
Here are 4 examples of sentences in English using ‘get’ as a transitive verb with a noun:
- We got the test results last week.
- Yesterday, I got new shoes for the wedding.
- After many years, she finally got her dream job.
- I’m going to get permission to hold the concert in the park.
How could you replace ‘get’ (or ‘got’) in each of these sentences with a different English verb?
Here is how I replaced these verbs:
We got the test results last week → We received the test results last week.
English: We received the test results last week.
Español: Recibimos los resultados de las pruebas la semana pasada. .
Yesterday, I got new shoes for the wedding → Yesterday, I bought new shoes for the wedding.
English: Yesterday, I bought new shoes for the wedding.
Español: Ayer compré zapatos nuevos para la boda.
After many years, she finally got her dream job → After many years, she finally acquired her dream job.
English: After many years, she finally acquired her dream job.
Español: Después de muchos años, al final ella consiguió su trabajo soñado.
I’m going to get permission to hold the concert in the park → I’m going to ask for (request) permission to hold the concert in the park.
English: I’m going to ask for (request) permission to hold the concert in the park.
Español: Voy a pedir permiso para celebrar el concierto en el parque.
‘Get’ as an intransitive verb
When we use ‘get’ as an intransitive verb without a noun, there are several more meanings that ‘get’ can take on.
Here, again, the key strategy for translating ‘get’ into Spanish is to first look for another verb you can use as a substitution.
Try to think of some verbs you could use to replace ‘get’ in the following examples:
- When are we going to get there?
- It’s my birthday next week, I don’t want to get older.
- He gets upset when his football team loses.
- I’m getting tired.
Let’s look at how we can substitute and then translate these verbs into Spanish:
When are we going to get there? → When are we going to arrive there?
English: When are we going to arrive there?
Español: ¿Cuándo vamos a llegar allí?
It’s my birthday tomorrow, I don’t want to get older → It’s my birthday tomorrow, I don’t want to age.
English: It’s my birthday tomorrow, I don’t want to age.
Español: Mañana es mi cumpleaños, no quiero envejecer.
With the next two examples, I’m going to talk about two different ways we can translate these sentences into Spanish.
The first requires a simple change using the verb estar and translates well between English and Spanish:
He gets upset when his football team loses → He is upset when his football team loses.
English: He is upset when his football team loses.
Español: Está molesto cuando su equipo de fútbol pierde.
I’m getting tired → I’m tired.
English: I’m tired.
Español: Estoy cansado.
Alternatively, if you are comfortable with reflexive verbs, you can use a second option that sounds better in Spanish but doesn’t translate as well between English and Spanish:
He gets upset when his football team loses → He becomes upset (upsets himself) when his football team loses.
English: He becomes upset (upsets himself) when his football team loses.
Español: Se molesta cuando su equipo de fútbol pierde.
I’m getting tired → I’m becoming tired (tiring myself).
English: I’m becoming tired (I’m tiring myself)
Español: Me canso.
As you can see with these last two examples, we need the reflexive verbs molestarse and cansarse.
Moreover, there are a number of reflexive verbs in Spanish that we can use as a translation of an intransitive form of ‘get’. For example, casarse (to get married), vestirse (to get dressed), mejorarse (to get better) and perderse (to get lost).
When ‘get’ appears in a phrasal verb
A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and a preposition or adverb.
There are hundreds of these verbs in English.
And, we use them every day without knowing how hard they are for students learning English.
It’s only when we start to think about translating these verbs into another language that we notice how difficult they can be.
Here’s a list of phrasal verbs with ‘get’:
- Get by
- Get up to
- Get down to
- Get across
- Get along
- Get around to
- Get over
- Get away
- Get away with
- Get on with
- Get out
- Get out of
- Get into
- Get back into
- Get off
- Get off lightly
And, this is by no means an exhaustive list!
Fortunately, if your first language is English, it is much easier to translate these verbs into another language than go in the other direction because you already know what they mean.
All you need to remember is that you can’t translate ‘get by’, ‘get along’ or ‘get out of’ word-for-word into Spanish.
And, instead, you simply need to substitute these phrasal verbs with a different English verb before you translate the sentence.
I’m going to provide a few examples here. As extra homework, see if you can think of more substitutions from the list above or other phrasal verbs you can ‘come up with’.
I can get by with only a few words of French → I can survive with only a few words of French.
English: I can survive with only a few words of French.
Español: Puedo sobrevivir con solo unas pocas palabras de francés.
I’m going to get off work at 5:00 pm → I’m going to finish work at 5:00 pm.
English: I’m going to finish work at 5:00 pm.
Español: Voy a terminar el trabajo a las 5.
My wife and my brother get along really well → My wife and my brother have a good relationship.
English: My wife and my brother have a good relationship.
Español: Mi esposa y mi hermano tienen una buena relación.
Note, in this last example, I have substituted the verb and rearranged the sentence to express a very similar idea.
This ability to substitute and rearrange is so important for being able to think and express your ideas in Spanish.
‘Get’ in colloquial expressions
In addition to phrasal verbs, ‘get’ can appear in colloquial idiomatic expressions that are impossible to translate.
Here are some examples:
- Get a life
- Get a kick out of something
- Get a load off one’s mind
- Get on someone’s case
- Get someone’s drift
- Get some shut-eye
If you try to translate any of these phrases you will get very strange looks from Spanish natives.
English: Get a life!
¡Consigue una vida! ⊗
This doesn’t make sense in Spanish.
Instead, you need to look for a completely different way to express the same idea.
If you feel like saying to someone ‘get a life’, what exactly is the idea you want to express?
Often we can use this expression in a few different ways. But, if you want to tell someone that is working too hard that they need to go out and ‘get a life’, you could say:
English: Stop working so much! You need to go out and find other things to do.
Español: ¡Deja de trabajar tanto! Tienes que salir y encontrar otras cosas que hacer.
This really depends on the expression, and exactly what you want to say.
As another example, if you want to say that you ‘get someone’s drift’, how else could you express this idea in English?
Normally, when we ‘get someone’s drift’, we mean to say that we understand what they are saying.
Therefore, in Spanish, we could say:
English: I understand what you are saying.
Español: Entiendo lo que dices.
Again, keeping with the theme of this article, the key skill here is noticing the colloquial idiomatic expression and searching for another way to express the same idea in English before you translate the phrase into Spanish.
Active and passive causative sentences with ‘get’
Now to answer the question that inspired this article…
Whenever someone ’causes’ someone to do something or ’causes’ something to happen, we need a causative sentence.
In English, we often use ‘get’ or ‘make’ in causative sentences.
When we form an active causative sentence, we include the person causing the outcome (the subject) and the person making the change (the agent).
My doctor is getting me to eat more vegetables.
In this sentence the doctor is causing the change, she is the subject. And, I’m being forced to make the change, I’m the agent.
In contrast, for passive causative sentences, we remove the agent making the change. And, there is generally only one subject.
I got the house cleaned on Tuesday.
In this example, the passive agent is the person cleaning the house because we remove him from the sentence. And, I’m the subject causing the change.
When we translate causative sentences into Spanish, active is generally much easier to translate than passive.
Active causative sentences with get in Spanish
So, let’s start by looking at some examples of active causative sentences.
A simple way to express active causative sentences in Spanish is to change ‘get’ to ‘make’. Then we can often simply use the Spanish verb hacer as the translation of ‘make’.
My doctor is getting me to eat more vegetables → My doctor is making me eat more vegetables.
English: My doctor is making me (makes me) eat more vegetables.
Español: Mi médica me hace comer más verduras.
My wife got me to return the gift → My wife made me return the gift.
English: My wife made me return the gift.
Español: Mi esposa me hizo devolver el regalo.
Passive causative sentences with get in Spanish
In contrast, when we need to form passive causative sentences in Spanish, we often need a reflexive verb and the subjunctive mood.
I recommend that all students learn how to avoid the subjunctive mood because beginner and intermediate students can be confidently conversational without it and advanced students tend to overuse it. Therefore all students can do with more practice avoiding it.
So, when it comes to avoiding the subjunctive in passive causative sentences, we simply need to remove the subject of the sentence.
I got the house cleaned on Tuesday → The house was (got) cleaned on Tuesday.
Now we can simply translate this sentence into Spanish by making the verb limpiar (to clean) reflexive:
English: The house was cleaned on Tuesday.
Español: La casa se limpió el martes.
Here is another example:
We got the car fixed last week → The car was (got) fixed last week.
English: The car was fixed last week.
Español: El coche se arregló la semana pasada.
Before wrapping up this section, there is another option that we need to consider with passive causative sentences. When the change is happening to someone (e.g. a body part) as opposed to something (the car or the house), we can get away without a rearrangement and go straight to a reflexive verb.
I got my hair cut.
In this sentence, the agent of the change is the hairdresser, so it is a passive causative sentence. But, it is happening to me as opposed to a house or a car, so we can use the reflexive form of cortar to express this idea without rearranging the sentence.
English: I got my hair cut.
Español: Me corté el pelo.
Or, another example:
English: I got my eyes checked.
Español: Me revisé los ojos.
Learning a language as an adult requires new skills such as shifting the way you think about the sentences you want to translate. This is especially true for verbs like ‘get’.
The skills of substituting verbs in English and understanding grammar structures before you translate are incredibly important in your language learning journey because they can make the process of thinking and expressing yourself in another language much easier.
Go through the list of uses of ‘get’ in English and look for different ways to express the same or similar idea without ‘get’.
How else can you translate get in Spanish?