We Translate On Time

Untranslatable idioms

July 3rd, 2019

Idioms are one of the best parts of language learning. They are phrases that don't actually make much sense, but culturally have a specific meaning. For example, in English when we say that it's 'raining cats and dogs', it obviously doesn't mean that cats and dogs are literally falling from the sky. While this may be obvious to a native speaker, when listening to idioms in other languages, it can be difficult to interpret what they are about. The majority of the time idioms can not be translated literally, as their meaning is not properly conveyed, instead we need to understand the reason behind the idiom and when it is used so that we can try to form an equivalent in the target language. Here are some bizarre and 'untranslatable' idioms from all over the world.

1.) 'In bocca al lupo' (Italian) - Literally 'in the mouth of the wolf'. This is used in theatre to wish a performer good luck, much like the English 'break a leg'.

2.)' Gladna mechka horo ne igrae' (Bulgarian) - Literally, 'a hungry bear doesn't dance'. The idiom means that you can't expect something from someone if you give them nothing in return. 

3.) 'Det är ingen ko på isen' (Swedish) - Literally, 'there's no cow on the ice'. This idiom is used to mean 'there's no need to worry'.

4.) 'Quem não tem cão caça com gato' (Portuguese) - Literally 'he who doesn't have a dog hunts with a cat', meaning, you make the most of what you've got. 

5.) 'Chodit kolem horké kaše' (Czech) - Literally 'to walk around in hot porridge', this has a similar meaning to the English idiom 'to beat around the bush'.

6.) 'J'ai d'autres chats à fouetter!' (French) - Literally 'I have other cats to whip', but is used to mean, 'I have other things to do'. It is similar to the English, 'I have other fish to fry'.

7.) 'Nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy' (Polish) - Literally 'not my circus, not my monkey', i.e. not my problem. 

8.) 'Mucho ruido y pocas nueces' (Spanish) - Literally 'lots of noise and few walnuts', meaning, all talk and no action. 

9.) 'Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei' (German) - Literally 'everything has one end, only the sausage has two', which is used to say that everything comes to an end.

10.) 'Veshat' lapshu na ushi' (Russian) - Literally 'to hang noodles on one's ears'. Similar to 'you're pulling my leg', but stronger.




by Nicola Spruyt