Why It’s So Hard To Translate Love

People are usually eager to hear those three little words: I love you. This may apply to everyone except for Spanish translators. In English, there’s a huge gap from “I like you” to “I love you”. In the process, you might hear “I care about you”, “I like you a lot”, “You’re important to me” and a bunch of other phrases that mean more than like but a lot less than love.

When it comes to Spanish, a translator working on subtitles for a movie or a book translation has two options: “te quiero” or “te amo”. The first is what dog owners say to their pets when they scratch their bellies. It’s what best friends say to each other and it’s also what couples usually say in the early stage of the relationship. “Te quiero” can also literally be translated as “I want you” in English. Nonetheless, it is not as powerful as saying “te amo”. You reserve those words for your family members, someone you’re falling for or for your husband/wife.  This is, of course, according to me. But each translator decides which term to use when working on a particular project.

I turned to Google to find out how P.S. I Love You, a romantic flick, is titled in Spanish. Even before I pressed enter it seemed like the problem is not just one that baffles me.

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  It also reminded me about another movie. In Love and Other Drugs (Amor y otras adicciones), one of the characters confesses he is in love. He declares it’s the first time he has ever said it to anyone since he never even said it to his family members. In that scene, it seems like the powerful words even cause him to have a panic attack. His love interest doesn’t say it back, but she does admit to having said it once to a cat before. The subtitles in Spanish, at least in the version I saw, were “te quiero”. I felt that due to the context, the seriousness of saying those words for the first time in a lifetime would only be justified with “te amo”.

love you


What do you think? I love you = Is it te amo or te quiero?


  1. It’s just too complicated. We better refrain from using those expressions 😉 jk

    As for the last question, I believe I love you = te amo. That would even make sense in Love and other drugs scene, as 1) it’s reasonable that he hasn’t told that to anyone and 2) she is just joking around with the cat thing.

    I also think it’s harder to translate Te quiero from Spanish to English. First of all, like you said, there’s a huge gap between I like you and I love you. But even worse is the fact that Te quiero has such a wide range of meanings: it can be as far from Te amo as I like you is from I love you, but it can also be REALLY (and scarily haha) close to it, depending on the situation.

    We should have scales, you know (e.g.: I like you level 3 out of 5 haha)

    1. Maybe the Spanish were just a little cleverer at making sure they had two options after saying “I like you”. If they didn’t want to get in too deep they could just rely on “te quiero”. I agree with your analysis! Nonetheless, the decision is always up to individual translators. Maybe when I believe something should be translated as “te quiero” another translator decides that it shouldn’t be. Love is so complicated, isn’t it?

      Thanks for commenting! :*

  2. Interesting – I’m from Spain and I definitely place a lot of weight on the words “Te quiero”, just as much as “te amo”. However, “te amo” feels more cheesy and poetic so I’d probably almost always use “te quiero / te quiero muchísimo”, and if I only “liked” someone I’d say “te adoro” o “me gustas muchísimo” 🙂

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