Speaking of Work in Spanish

Translations include 'trabajo' and 'funcionar'

man working
A mi tío le gusta su trabajo. (My uncle likes his work.).

 Solina Images/Getty Images

Although the related Spanish words trabajo (noun) and trabajar (verb) likely first come to mind as translations for the English word "work," in fact "work" has an array of meanings that must be conveyed in Spanish in other ways.

Key Takeaways

  • Trabajo (noun) and trabajar (verb) are frequently used to refer to human labor.
  • Funcionar is commonly used when saying whether a thing works.
  • Many idiomatic phrases using "work" need to be learned individually for translation.

Translating 'Work' as Employment

Trabajo and trabajar are frequently used to mean "work" when it refers to employment:

  • Mi hermano busca trabajo. (My brother is looking for work.)
  • Va al trabajo cada mañana vestido de una camisa blanca. (He goes to work every day dressed in a white shirt.)
  • ¿Qué tipo de trabajo estás buscando? (What line of work are you looking for?)
  • Si trabajamos es importante trazarnos metas realistas a cumplir. (If we work it is important to develop realistic goals to accomplish.)
  • Katrina y yo trabajamos juntos. (Katrina and I work together.)
  • La mayoría de sus parientes masculinos trabajaron en la fábrica. (Most of her male relatives worked in the factory.)

When "work" refers to a job, empleo can also be used:

  • Según la agencia, el 65 por ciento de los hondureños no tiene empleo. (According to the agency, 65 percent of Hondurans don't have work.)
  • El empleo es la clave para erradicar la pobreza. (Work is the key to eradicating poverty.)
  • Su empleo puede interferir con sus obligaciones académicas. (Your work can interfere with your academic obligations.)

'Work' Referring to Functioning

When "to work" is a synonym of "to function," funcionar can often be used:

  • Este método no funciona en todos los casos. (This method doesn't work in every case.)
  • El modelo económico chino funciona bien. (The Chinese economic model works well.)
  • Cuando una computadora funciona mal el primer paso es rehabilitar al operador. (When a computer works poorly the first step is to retrain the operator.)

Similarly, "to work" meaning "to have an effect" can be translated as surtir efecto:

  • La protesta campesina surte efecto. The farmworkers' protest is working.
  • Desgraciadamente, la medicina no surtió efecto. Unfortunately, the medicine didn't work.

'To Work Out'

The phrase "work out" can be translated in various ways depending on what is meant. As you learn Spanish, you may be best off thinking of other English words that have the same meaning and translate them instead:

  • Todo muy biensale para Santos. (Everything worked out (turned out) very well for Santos.)
  • Si hace ejercicio en un gimnasio, pida asistencia antes de probar algo nuevo. (If you work out (exercise) in a gymnasium, ask for help before trying something new.)
  • Necesito ayuda para resolver estes crucigramas. (I need help to work out (solve) these crossword puzzles.)

Similarly, if uses of "work" don't fit well in any of the above categories, see if you can think of a good English synonym and try translating that word instead:

  • Está desempleado. (He's out of work (unemployed).)
  • Los peones labraban la tierra. (The farmhands worked (cultivated) the ground.)
  • El artista prefiere pintar al óleo. (The artist prefers to work (paint) in oils.)
  • Soy adicto a trabajo. (I'm a workaholic (addicted to work).)
  • Se puso frenético cuando leyó la carta. (He worked himself into (became) a frenzy when he read the letter.)
  • Fue impactado en el pecho por un tornillo que se soltó. He was struck in the chest by a screw that had worked itself loose (became loose).
  • Este problema es imposibe de evitar. (This problem is impossible to work around (avoid).)
  • Mi hermana completó el proyecto escolar con rápidez. (My sister made short work (completed rapidly) of the school project.)

There are also a few ways "work" is used that have specific equivalents, the most common being obra as an artistic creation: Nuestro sistema solar es una obra de arte. (Our solar system is a work of art.) Similarly, a reference work is an obra de referencia.

The phrase "piece of work" or "real piece of work," when referring to a person, can be translated in numerous ways, depending on precisely on what is meant. You could say, for example, the the person crea problemas (creates problems), es difícil (is difficult), or es complicado (is complicated). There are also idiomatic phrases such as calling the person todo un personaje (loosely, quite a personality) or una buena pieza (literally, a good piece).

The translations given above for "work" are far from the only possibilities, and are intended to give you a feel for the different ways of approaching translation of the word.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "Speaking of Work in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/speaking-of-work-3079711. Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Speaking of Work in Spanish. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/speaking-of-work-3079711 Erichsen, Gerald. "Speaking of Work in Spanish." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/speaking-of-work-3079711 (accessed June 9, 2023).