Phrases That Cannot Be Translated Literally

alex atkins bookshelf phrases“Most of the world’s languages have phrases or sentences that cannot be understood literally,” writes lexicographer Richard Spears. “Even if you know all the words in a phrase and understand all the grammar… the meaning may still be elusive. A phrase or sentence of this type is said to be idiomatic.” American English, being so idiomatic, causes a lot of confusion for second language learners. Imagine their horror when they hear that someone is “trying to bury the hatchet” with another person; or a person states “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.” The actual meaning of those phrases is lost in translation; of course, English speakers know they have nothing to do with hatchets or horses. But how is an English language learner supposed to know that?

The English language, however, does not have a monopoly on phrases that when translated literally seem, well idiotic. Just ask the translators involved with the Open Translation Project, who translate TED Talks into over 100 languages. They were asked to share their favorite idiomatic phrases, or phrases that cannot be translated literally. Use at your own peril (idiom followed by literal translation, followed by actual meaning):

German Idioms
Idiom: Tomaten auf den Augen haben.
Translated literally: “You have tomatoes on your eyes.”
Actual Meaning: “You are not seeing what everyone else can see. It refers to real objects, though — not abstract meanings.”

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.
“I only understand the train station.”
“I don’t understand a thing about what that person is saying.’”

Die Katze im Sack kaufen.
“To buy a cat in a sack.”
That a buyer purchased something without inspecting it first.

French Idioms 
Avaler des couleuvres.
“To swallow grass snakes.”
“It means being so insulted that you’re not able to reply.” 

Sauter du coq à l’âne.
“To jump from the cock to the donkey.”
“It means to keep changing topics without logic in a conversation.” 

Se regarder en chiens de faïence.
“To look at each other like earthenware dogs.”
“Basically, to look at each other coldly, with distrust.” 

Les carottes sont cuites!
“The carrots are cooked!”
“The situation can’t be changed.”

Swedish Idioms
Det är ingen ko på isen
“There’s no cow on the ice.”
“There’s no need to worry. 

Att glida in på en räkmacka
“To slide in on a shrimp sandwich.”
“somebody who didn’t have to work to get where they are.”

Det föll mellan stolarna
“It fell between chairs.”
“It’s an excuse you use when a person was supposed to do something, and forgot to do it.”

Russian Idioms
Галопом по Европам
“Galloping across Europe.”
“To do something hastily, haphazardly.”

На воре и шапка горит
“The thief has a burning hat.”
“He has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.”

Хоть кол на голове теши
“You can sharpen with an ax on top of this head.”
“He’s a very stubborn person.”

The idiom: брать/взять себя в руки
“To take oneself in one’s hands.”
“to pull yourself together.”

Portuguese Idioms
Quem não se comunica se trumbica
“He who doesn’t communicate, gets his fingers burnt.”
“He who doesn’t communicate gets into trouble.”’

Quem não tem cão caça com gato
“He who doesn’t have a dog hunts with a cat.”
“You make the most of what you’ve got.” Basically, you do what you need to do, with what the resources you have. 

Empurrar com a barriga
“To push something with your belly.”
“To keep postponing an important chore.”

Pagar o pato
“Pay the duck.”
“To take the blame for something you did not do.”

Polish Idioms
Słoń nastąpił ci na ucho?
“Did an elephant stomp on your ear?”
 “You have no ear for music.”

Bułka z masłem.
“It’s a roll with butter.”
“It’s really easy.”

Z choinki się urwałaś?
“Did you fall from a Christmas tree?”
“You are not well informed, and it shows.”

Read related posts: Words Related to Trump
Resume Euphemisms
What Rhymes with Orange?
The Most Mispronounced Words
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels
The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations

For further reading: http://blog.ted.com/40-idioms-that-cant-be-translated-literally/

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