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I understand por is a very versatile preposition with a whole range of meanings and nuances from through to around and from in to by. However, right now, I am only interested in translating through. So as a translation for through, how does por differ from a través de?

I am pretty sure they're not entirely interchangeable at all times. But can't put my finger on how. Would be great if you could quote examples where using one would be preferable over the other. Also, if there's any regional preference, would love to know that too.

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Since you are asking for quote examples when one is preferred over the other with the sense of through, here are a few of them:

  • When you know someone through someone else, you use a través de. If you use por, the implication would be that you know someone because of, or as a favour to someone else.

    Conocí a Joaquín a través de Carla. Ella nos presentó.
    Conocí a Joaquín por Carla. Yo no quería, pero Carla insistió mucho.

  • When the meaning of through isn't obvious in a given context, a través de is preferred. For example Alice Through the Looking Glass was translated to Spanish as Alicia a través del espejo. The alternative Alicia por el espejo would have been meaningless because without context no one would ever think you can pass through a mirror. Generally, a través de is more restricted than por, so in case of ambiguity a través de is always a better option.

    Los peajes cambian a través del país means that as you move across the country, tolls change.
    Los peajes cambian por el país would be more ambiguos, potentially meaning that tolls change from a country to another, or that they change because of the country, for the country, etc.

  • When a través de expresses a means, it is preferred over por.

    Llegó a presidente de la empresa a través de artimañas y mentiras.

  • Pasar a través de usually means "to pass through". Pasar por usually means "to pass by" (or "to pay a visit").

    El gato pasó a través de la casa de Carmen means that a cat used Carmen's house as a pass-through to go somewhere else.
    El gato pasó por la casa de Carmen can be understood in several ways, including that a cat passed by her house.

    • Of course, with the right context pasar por can also mean "to pass through":

      Por favor, pase por el detector de metales.

    • When "to pass through" is used metaphorically, pasar por is preferred.

      Al terminar la compra, pase por caja.

That's all I can think of right now. If I come up with other differences, I will update the answer.

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If you are only interested in translating through, you can use either of them almost any time. This is because one of the meanings of por is a través de. In writing, there is no preference from the grammatical perspective. These are my comments about usage:

  • You should favor a través de in cases that the meaning is not perfectly implied.
  • You should use a través de if you want emphasize the meaning.
  • A través de may be favored for some people when writing. However it's awkward if you use a través de every time.
  • I would mostly use por verbally. In fact, I would mostly use por if I am writing a letter, an e-mail, a story or any informal text.

Por has many equivalents in English; these are some examples:

  • near - esa tienda está por mi casa
  • by - escrito por mí
  • because of - lo encerraron por ladrón
  • for - lo compré por cien pesos
  • times - dos por dos son cuatro,
  • every single one - peso por peso

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