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Translating 'That'

Spanish Equivalent Depends on Meaning, Part of Speech

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"That" is one of those words in English that has no straightforward answer to the question: "How do you translate that to Spanish?"

More so than most words, translating "that" to Spanish requires you to understand how it is used in a sentence and what it means. A quite common word, it can function as a pronoun, conjunction, adjective or adverb — or be part of phrases where its meaning is less than clear.

Following are some of the most common ways that "that" can be translated to Spanish. It is not a complete list.

"That" as an adjective

When "that" is used an adjective, it most often is used to point to a particular thing or person. In such cases, it functions as a demonstrative adjective. The most common demonstrative adjectives used for "that" are ese (masculine), esa (feminine), aquel (masculine) and aquella (feminine). Generally, objects referred to with eso or esa are not as far away in space or time as ones accompanied by aquel or aquella.
  • I'm going to buy myself that car. Me voy a comprar ese coche.
  • That car (over there) is better than yours. Aquel coche es mejor que el tuyo.
  • I want that computer! ¡Quiero esa computadora!
Less frequently, "that" can be used to refer to someone or something that was mentioned earlier. Using dicho or dicha is a possible translation:
  • At the end of the video one can observe that that woman (the one mentioned earlier) is betrayed before her very eyes. Al final del video se puede observar que dicha mujer es traiconada ante sus propios ojos.
  • I would like to acquire that car (that we've been talking about). Me gustaría adquirir dicho coche.

"That" as a subject or object pronoun

Usually, when "that" is used as subject or object pronoun, it is used much the same was as the demonstrative adjectives discussed above, except that it stands by itself without the noun, becoming a demonstrative pronoun. The forms are the same as the adjectives listed above, except that an orthographic accent is generally used: ése, ésa, aquél and aquélla. The gender changes depending on whether the noun being referred to is masculine or feminine:
  • I'm going to buy myself that. Me voy a comprar ése.
  • That (over there) is better than yours. Aquél es mejor que el tuyo.
  • I want that! ¡Quiero ésa!
Note: According to many authorities, the orthographic accent isn't necessary if the sentence is unambiguous without it.

If "that" refers to a sentence, a thought or something that is unknown (and therefore its gender not known), eso (no accent) is used:

  • That is a good idea. Eso es una buena idea.
  • What is that? ¿Qué es eso?
  • All that can't be free. Todo eso no puede ser gratis.
In many cases, "that" as a subject pronoun doesn't have to be translated at all, especially where "it" could be used as well. For example, "that's impossible" could usually be translated as either "eso es imposible" or merely "es imposible."

"That" as a relative pronoun

When "that" is used as a relative pronoun, it introduces a phrase or clause that provides more information about a noun, which it follows. This concept is probably easier to understand with examples, where "that" is generally translated by the Spanish que:
  • This is the house that you're looking for. Ésta es la casa que buscas.
  • She is the student that knows nothing. Es la estudiante que sabe nada.
  • El Bulli is a restaurant that is found in Girona. El Bulli es un restaurante que se encuentra en Girona.
If the relative pronoun "that" is used in an English sentence that ends in a preposition, you may need to use the relative pronoun el cual or its variations (la cual, los cuales or las cuales, depending on number and gender) following a Spanish preposition:
  • It's the book that you can't live without. Es el libro sin el cual no podrías vivir.
  • She is a woman that many don't pay attention to. Es una mujer a la cual muchos no le ponen atención.

"That" as a conjunction

Although "that" may not seem like a conjunction, it often functions as one (a subordinating conjunction, to be precise) when it follows a verb. Typically, que can be used in translation:
  • The boss said that he was happy with my work. El jefe me dijo que está contento con mi trabajo.
  • I understand that I can't be forced to sign this document. Comprendo que no se me puede forzar a firmar este documento.
  • He knows that we know that such an aspiration is stupidity. Él sabe que nosotros sabemos que tal pretensión es una estupidez.

"That" as an adverb

Usually, "that" as an adverb is the rough equivalent of "so" and can be translated as tan.
  • He isn't that smart. No es tan inteligente.
  • Yes, it's that important to wash your hands. Sí, es tan importante lavarse los manos.
The following page focuses on phrases and idioms using "that."
Grammar Glossary

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