On my morning walk (in the drizzle and under grey west country skies) I found myself wondering about the above saying. I returned to my gaff and googled. I knew roughly what it meant, but
Literally Buscarle très pies al gato means to look for three legs on the cat. Obviously it is a saying, so the literal meaning isn’t the actual meaning.
So what does it mean?
I found a reference to this on lasfrasesparahoy where they suggest that the Real Academia Española (big dudes who are officially responsible for overseeing the Spanish language) state that it means empeñarse temerariamente en cosas que pueden acarrearle daño.
This translates as ‘insist recklessly in things that can bring you damage’. empeñarse could mean ‘insist on’ or ‘get into’ depending on the context but I think here ‘insist on’ is a better translation.
I found another meaning here the gist being No le busques tres pies al gato para indicar que no debe uno complicar lo sencillo o intentar probar lo impossible. The expression ‘no le busques tres pies al gato’ indicates that you should not overcomplicate or try to prove the impossible.
Well, that seems similar but not identical to the meaning given by Real Academia Española.
I googled some more and discovered a definition stating it meant Significa buscar el lado negativo de las cosas ‘to look for the negative side of things’. I don’t like this one.
I googled some more and a common translation given is ‘to split hairs‘ . This means to argue about small or unimportant details.
Stop splitting hairs.
I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone use it.
So what does it mean?
I think the primary translation is ‘Don’t look for trouble/complications where there aren’t any’.
I think is can also be used in the sense of ‘splitting hairs’ E.g. Yo no le busco tres pies al gato, simplemente que me parece absurda la explicación dada. ‘I don’t want to split hairs but the explanation given seems ridiculous to me’.
There might also be another meaning of ‘there is no point flogging a dead horse’. I’m not sure about this.
None of these match empeñarse temerariamente en cosas que pueden acarrearle daño which I may have mistranslated – which is distinctly probable.
After writing this, it is still raining, there are still paw prints everywhere, my dog is still wet, and I am still none the wiser about this saying. I need to find more examples, and all will become clear.
Besos, peace, ciao