Translating ‘By’ to Spanish

English preposition has many meanings

aftermath of a minor car crash
Mi coche fue atropellado por otro coche. (My car was struck by another car.).

Peter Stark / Getty Images 

"By" is one of the English prepositions that is most difficult for Spanish students to translate into their new language, because it can have many meanings.

Before you try translating a sentence using "by," you need to ask yourself, "What does this word mean?" In many cases, if you can reword the sentence to express the same thought or relationship in different words, you are well on your way to figuring out what you want to say in Spanish.

Here are some of the most common meanings of "by" with examples of how the same thing can be said in Spanish.

To Indicate Agent or Cause

Usually, you can say that something was created or put in its present condition by someone or something using the preposition por. If the word or phrase (known as an object) following "by" answers the question "who or what did it?" then por is your likely choice.

  • "Hamlet" was written by Shakespeare. ("Hamlet" fue escrito por Shakespeare.)
  • The area affected by the sound is very large. (La zona afectado por el sonido es muy grande.)
  • Ozone is a gas formed by the action of sunlight. (El ozono es un gas que se forma por la acción de la luz solar.)
  • My car was struck by another car. (Mi coche fue atropellado por otro coche.)

As in the first example above, por is often used to indicate authorship. Thus, a book cover will usually indicate that the contents were written por the author.

However, in sentences in English that can be reworded to use the name of an author as a description, the preposition de is usually used in translation:

  • "Volver" is a film by Almodovar. ("Volver" is an Almodovar film.) "Volver" es una película de Almodóvar. The English could also be stated as "Volver is an Almodovar film.")
  • Where I can I buy books by Mark Twain in Spanish? (¿Dónde puedo comprar libros de Mark Twain en español? The English could also be stated as "Where can I buy Mark Twain books in Spanish?")

Means of Transportation

Usually en or por can be used more or less interchangeably when indicating how someone or something travels, although en is more common.

  • We are traveling by plane from New York to London. (Viajamos en avión desde Nueva York a Londres. Viajamos por avión desde Nueva York a Londres.)
  • Traveling by car through Norway is easy and pleasant. (Viajar en coche por Noruega es sencillo y agradable. Viajamos por coche por Noruega es sencillo y agradable.)

However, the phrases "by foot" and "by horseback" are typically translated by the fixed phrases a pie and a caballo.

  • Enjoy Madrid with this private tour by foot with an official guide. (Disfrute de Madrid con este tour privado a pie con guía oficial.)
  • The three left by horseback and are not coming back. (Los tres salieron a caballo y no regresan.)

In Time Elements

When "by" means "not later than," para can be used:

  • I will be ready by 4. (Estaré lista para las cuatro.)
  • I hope that we can announce it by midnight. (Espero que podamos anunciar para la medianoche.)

Indicating Proximity

When "by" means "near" or "next to," cerca de or junta a can be used:

  • There is a large park by the library. (Hay un gran parque junto a la biblioteca.)
  • All the hotels are located by the beach. (Todos los hoteles se encuentran ubicados cerca de la playa.)

Untranslated ‘By’ With the Spanish Present Participle

Spanish often uses present participles (the verb form ending in -ando or -endo) in a way that doesn't have an exact English equivalent but is used to indicate the means by which a goal or state of being is accomplished. In such cases, the sentences can convey the meaning of the English "by." Examples:

  • A fake doctor got rich by diagnosing nonexistent cancers. (Un falso doctor se hizo rico diagnosticando cánceres inexistentes.)
  • By studying weekends, Susana will pass the test. (Estudiando los fines de semana, Susana aprobará el examen.)

Note that in these examples, the English "by" could be omitted with little or no change in meaning.

In Arithmetic

"To divide by" is dividir entre, while "to multiply by" is multiplicar por. When dimensions are given, por is used: tres metros por seis, three by six meters.

Meaning ‘According To’

Where "by" is the rough equivalent of "per" or "according to," use por:

  • We buy eggs by the dozen. (Compramos los huevo por docenas.)
  • She destroyed the password by my request. (Destruyé el pasaporte por my solicitud.)
  • It will be subject to limitations established by law. (Estará sujeta a las limitaciones establecidas por la ley.)

Idiomatic phrases

Numerous idiomatic phrases using "by" often can't be translated word for word. The concept may be expressed in some other way in Spanish other than directly translating "by." Some examples:

  • I want to do it by myself. (Quiero hacerlo sin ayuda.) (The phrase is translated as the Spanish equivalent of "without help.")
  • You could follow our trip almost day by day thanks to David's blog. (Pudisteis seguir nuestro viaje casi día a día gracias al blog de David.)
  • We want to eat by candlelight. (Queremos comer a las luz de las velas.)
  • Pablo introduced all the teachers to us one by one. (Pablo nos presentó uno a uno todos los profesores.)
  • What do you mean by "difficult"? (¿Qué quieres decir con "dificil"?)

Key Takeaways

  • The English "by" can be translated to Spanish in several common ways, depending on how it is used.
  • The most common translation for "by" is por, which can by use when "by" is used to point to who or what performed an action.
  • Other possible translations of "by" include en, entre, cerca de, junto a, and de.