I asked directions to the store, this guy said, "Well that's just a hop, skip and a jump away." ... "Well that's not how I'm getting there...You got directions for those who are walking?" - Mitch Hedberg
Wordplay, metaphor and colloquialism can all be particularly difficult to translate. A perfect example of this difficulty is evidenced in translating idioms. Idioms are phrases that we use as expressions of sentiment, but the literal words used are often misunderstood when taken out of context. Believe it or not, most idioms aren’t universal. While some idioms have correlations between different languages, often the subjects are altered in some way. For example, let’s examine the common English idiom, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” The origin of this saying is difficult to trace, but it likely has something to do with deceased animals washing up following heavy rains in 17th century England. Yuck. Different cultures have different ways of expressing large quantities of rain. In German, “Es regnet wie aus Eimern,” translates to a very relatable, “It’s raining as if out of a bucket.” The Dutch equivalent of this expression is perhaps even stranger than the English; “Het regent oude wijven,” or, “It’s raining old hags.”
Mona Baker’s book, “In Other Words,” addresses what she considers to be the five conditions for the idiom:
1. The order of the words can’t be changed.
2. None of the words can be removed.
3. No extra words can be added.
4. None of the words can be replaced.
5. The grammatical structure must not be altered.
Thus, it is a challenge to balance the retention of the meaning and quaint succinctness of idiom-laden materials through translation.
Below, find ten of our favorite examples of funny idioms from around the world, along with their literal translations and their meanings. Even if you’re a greenhorn, a tenderfoot, or wet behind the ears regarding the complexities of translation, you should get the drift from these gems.
🇪🇸 From Spain: “Te conozco bacalao, anque vengas disfrazao.”
Literal translation: I know you fish, even if you come disguised.
Meaning: I know what you’re up to even if you’re trying to hide it.
🇯🇵 From Japan: “猫の額” - or - “Neko no gaku”
Literal translation: Cat’s forehead
Meaning: A small space.
🇸🇪 From Sweden: “Det är ingen ko på isen.”
Literal translation: There is no cow on the ice.
Meaning: Don’t worry.
🇭🇷 From Croatia: “Mi o vuku.”
Literal translation: “To talk about the wolf.”
Meaning: Truncated from the longer phrase “When we talk about the wolf, he stands behind the door,” has an English correlation, “Speak of the devil and he doth appear,” often shortened to just “Speak of the devil.”
🇮🇹 From Italy: “Un cane in chiesa.”
Literal translation: “A dog in church.”
Meaning: An unwanted guest.
🇫🇷 From France: “Pédaler dans la choucroute.”
Literal translation: “Pedaling in sauerkraut.”
Meaning: To be getting nowhere, has an English correlation, “Treading water.”
🇵🇹 From Portugal: “Alimental um burro a pão-de-ló.”
Literal translation: “To feed the donkey sponge cake.”
Meaning: To give very good treatment to someone who doesn’t need (or deserve) it.
🇭🇺 From Hungary: “Nem kolbászból van a kerítés.”
Literal translation: “The fence is not made from sausage.”
Meaning: It’s not as good as you think.
🇩🇪 From Germany: “Tomaten auf den Augen haben.”
Literal translation: “You have tomatoes on your eyes.”
Meaning: You aren’t seeing what everyone else is seeing.
🇨🇳 From China: “对牛弹琴” - or - “Duì niú tán qín.”
Literal translation: “To play music for a cow.”
Meaning: To speak to those who won’t listen, has an English correlation, “To cast pearls before swine.”
A translation service that operates effectively requires not only a knowledge of language, but a knowledge of culture - including regional idioms - so that the correct message can be transmitted every time. At G3 Translate, we carefully hand assemble teams from the world’s finest translators and cultural experts to maximize the impact of your global messages.
Periodically, the correct solution is to remove the idiom and translate its meaning, provided that the alteration doesn’t sacrifice the tone of the original piece. Or, returning to a different Mitch Hedberg joke, “I'm gonna fix that last joke by taking out all the words and adding new ones.”
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