Idioms are commonplace in almost all languages. But what may seem a normal thing to say in one country, can seem utterly bizarre when translated into another language. Some of those translations are hilarious, whilst others are downright strange.
So whether the cat has got your tongue or something has really taken the biscuit, we’ve pulled together some of the world’s most interesting idioms and found out what they really mean in English.
1. Dead Men Need Winter Coats
Our first idiom comes from the Czech Republic which, as it turns out, has many interesting sayings when translated back into English.
Original: Platný jak mrtvýmu zimník
Literal Translation: He needs it like a dead man needs a winter coat.
Ok, so it might not be clear initially why deceased individuals would be in the market for a winter coat. It turns out they aren’t, obviously because they’ve already popped their clogs (see what we did there?). The actual meaning is to demonstrate how obviously useless something is. Luckily, we have versions of this phrase in English, the most commonly used version runs along the lines of “as useful as a chocolate teapot”.
2. Defecating in A Blue Cupboard
Swedish is another language rife with idioms that, when translated literally, make little sense. This next idiom is certainly not doing anything to buck that trend.
Original: Skita i det blå skåpet
Literal Translation: You’ve taken a poop in the blue cupboard.
This idiom never fails to raise an eyebrow! Mainly because people are curious to find out what on earth it’s referring to. It turns out this phrase is used to indicate you’ve made a fool of yourself with potentially negative consequences. The nearest English idiom would be “you’ve really put your foot in it now”.
3. Where Foxes Speak to Hares
It appears that German is another European language full of idioms. There are so many to choose from that we decided to opt for one that’s a little more left field.
Original: Wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen
Literal Translation: Where the fox and hare say goodnight to each other.
Once again, the phrase is utterly meaningless in English when translated literally. However, after a little research, it appears that this phrase is used to refer to a remote location. Apparently this is denoted by the fact that foxes and hares bid each other a good night. The English equivalent is probably best described as when someone “lives out in the sticks”.
4. Sauerkraut Doesn’t Provide the Best Surface for Riding a Bike
Next, we’re off to France to ride a bike. But not for the Tour the France, this time it’s for a widely used idiom.
Original: pédaler dans la choucroute
Literal Translation: To pedal in sauerkraut.
Now, of course, the phrase doesn’t mean to literally take your bike and attempt to ride it through the finest sliced raw cabbage. Instead, it means something is incredibly slow going, or not getting anywhere. We often use a similar phrase “like wading through treacle” to make the same point.
5. Eyesight is a Mysterious Phenomenon
This idiom comes from much further afield; from Indonesia to be precise. It refers to one’s ability to see certain objects.
Original: kuman di seberang lautan tampak, gajah di pelupuk mata tak tampak
Literal Translation: A germ across the sea can be seen, but an elephant on the eyelid can’t.
Another idiom that makes little sense when translated literally, however, this phrase is quite profound when properly unpacked. The phrase refers to the fact that it’s easy to spot the errors of others no matter how small they are, but difficult to acknowledge your own shortcomings, even if they are very large. In English, this could be considered a blend of “that’s a bit rich coming from you” and “you need to look yourself in the eye”.
6. Cranes and Chickens Don’t Usually Socialise
China is a country which is perhaps more famous for its proverbs than its idioms. However, there are still plenty to choose from, and we picked another idiom that involves animals.
Original: 鹤立鸡群, hèlìjīqún
Literal Translation: A crane among a flock of chickens.
So what does it mean if someone describes you in this manner? As it turns out that this is a very complementary idiom. It means that someone is “in a class of their own” or a “cut above the rest.” So if you are lucky enough to have this idiom bestowed on you, make sure to say thank you!
7. The Last Coke in The Desert
We round off our list of idioms by returning to Europe. This Spanish idiom may not signify what you might expect.
Original: Creerse la última coca-cola en el desierto
Literal Translation: You think you’re the last Coca Cola in the desert.
At first glance this idiom looks like it might be referring to quenching thirst, however, it’s a phrase to be used to challenge someone who has a high opinion of themselves. In English, the phrase is close to “you think you’re the bee’s knees”, or “you think you’re the best thing since sliced bread”.
There are literally thousands of idioms out there, which is far too much to cover within this short article. However, we’ve picked some of our remaining favourites for the idiom fans amongst you:
Polish: wypchać się sianem
Literal Translation: Stuff yourself with hay.
English Equivalent: “Go stuff yourself!”
Italian: un cane in chiesa
Literal Translation: A dog in church.
English Equivalent: “Look what the cat dragged in.” (unwanted guest)
Japanese: 花より団子 (hana yori dango)
Literal Translation: Dumplings instead of flowers.
English Equivalent: “Function over form.” “More substance than style.”
Chinese: 吹牛 (chuīniú)
Literal Translation: Inflating a cow.
English Equivalent: “Blowing your own trumpet.” (high opinion of your own achievements)
As you can see, languages aren’t always easy to translate – even when you know the meaning of each word contained within a phrase. Here at K International, we have been offering professional translation services in over 250 languages for more than 30 years. So if you need language services that you can rely on, don’t hesitate to get in touch with a member of our team today.