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Intriguing Idioms: How Certain Expressions Change So Drastically Across Different Languages

After several hectic, and at times, difficult months, on both a professional and personal level, I have finally found time to write a blog post that I have been thinking about for some time, especially given that many of my colleagues have posted highly thought-provoking content related to the same topic over recent weeks. Idioms have fascinated me ever since I was monolingual, but my predilection for idiomatic expressions became even greater as soon as I started to learn my first foreign language 13 years ago, which has only grown over time. These expressions highlight the fact that different languages represent different ways of perceiving the world, hence the often marked contrast in the images used across different languages for equivalent expressions. Thus, in order to find a suitable equivalent for such expressions in the target language, an in-depth understanding of the specificities of both cultures involved is required; the translation of idioms does not simply involve a linguistic rendering of an expression in another language, but also a form of cultural adaptation. For example, translating “Quand les poules auront des dents” literally into English as “When chickens have teeth” would be incorrect, since, unlike the French, we do not refer to the idea of chickens developing teeth to emphasise the unlikelihood of a particular occurrence. Rather, we express the same idea by saying “When pigs fly,” which is equally unlikely, of course, but evokes a completely different image. This shows that the world is perceived differently in French and English, for instance. This is just one example, however, of many marked differences in equivalent idioms across languages.


One of my industry colleagues, Fay-Saint Rose, kindly let me use some of her excellent examples of equivalent idioms that refer to different animals in French and English. When there are more important issues for us to deal with, we have “bigger fish to fry” in English, whereas the French have “other cats to whip” (“D’autres chats à fouetter”). Moreover, those who do not miss a thing possess an “eagle eye” in English, while the French would say that they have a “lynx’s eye” (“Oeil de lynx”).


She also draws attention to many French idioms containing references to fruits that do not allude to alternative fruits when translated into English. For instance, “you have the peach” (“Tu as/Vous avez la pêche”) in French, if you wake up “feeling good,” while “you have the melon” (Tu as/Vouz avez le melon”) if you are overly egotistical.

The Spanish also use many foods in idiomatic expressions, particularly bread and milk. For this section, I would like to thank my industry colleague, Rebeca Encinas Manchado, who kindly allowed me to draw inspiration from her latest posts on Spanish idioms. I don’t know whether it has anything to do with the importance afforded to bread by religion, for instance, with Spain and other Hispanic nations being devoutly Catholic as a whole, but bread is widely used in Spanish idioms to emphasise the greatness of something. For example, an incredibly attractive lady might be described in Spanish as “being better than bread” (“Estar más bueno que el pan”), which a Spanish teacher may also say about an unbelievably well behaved child on parents evening (“Ser más bueno que el pan”) – the child would be described as being “as good as gold” in English. The word “leche” (“milk”) is also used for emphasis, both for positive and negative concepts. For instance, “Es la leche” (“It’s the milk”) is used to refer to something incredible, while in English we’d be more likely to use an expression such as “It’s the bees knees,” or “It’s the dogs bollocks” (if you want to be more colloquial or vulgar), to express the same idea. Similarly, “At lightning speed” would most likely be translated as “A todo leche” (“With all the milk”) in Spanish.

With there being so many more examples of cultural adaptation with regard to the translation of idiomatic expressions, many of which are included in one of my latest purchases, Collins Easy Learning French Idioms, I could go on for ever about this topic if I wanted to. However, I will resist that temptation and simply list a few more of my favourite idioms in my working languages. Please note that some of the Spanish and Portuguese idioms mentioned are most commonly used in Mexico and Brazil respectively. The language, idiom, literal English translation and equivalent English expression are listed in that order.


Portuguese

“É muita areia para o meu carinhão”

“There is too much sand for my truck”

“I’ve taken too much on”/ “I’ve got too much on my plate” / “I’m in way over my head”


Portuguese

“Comprar gato por lebre”

“To buy a cat thinking it was a rabbit”

“To buy a pig in a poke”


Portuguese

“Quem vê cara, não vê coração”

“Those who see faces, don’t see hearts”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”


Portuguese

“Não é a minha praia”

“It’s not my beach”

“It’s not my cup of tea”


Portuguese

“Engolir sapos”

“To swallow frogs”

“To bite one’s tongue”


French

« Se porter comme un charme »

“To feel like a charm”

“To be as fit as a fiddle”


French

« La goutte d’eau qui fait déborder la vase »

“The drop of water that makes the vase overflow”

“The last straw”/ “The straw that broke the camel’s back”


French

« Tirer les marrons du feu »

“To pull the chestnuts out of the fire”

“To do the dirty work”


French

« Être dans la lune »

“To be in the moon”

“To have one’s head in the clouds”


French

« La moutarde lui montait au nez »

“The mustard got up his/her nose”

“He/she saw red”


French

« Tirer sur l’ambulance »

“To shoot at the ambulance”

“To kick someone when they are down”


French

« Être soupe au lait »

“To be milk soup”

“To have a short fuse”


French

« Se mettre le doigt dans l’œil »

“To put your finger in your eye”

“To be kidding yourself”


French

« Vendre la mèche »

“To sell the fuse”

“To give the game away”/ “To let the cat out of the bag”


French

« Prendre des vessies pour des lanternes »

“To mistake bladders for lanterns”

“To have the wool pulled over your eyes”


Spanish

“Darle la vuelta a la tortilla”

“To flip the omlette”

“To turn the tide” / “To turn the tables”


Spanish

“Llover a cántaros”

“To rain to pitchers”

“To rain cats and dogs”


Spanish

“Abrir la caja de los truenos”

“To open the box of thunder”

“To open a can of worms”


Spanish

“No hay que buscarle cinco patas al gato”

“There’s no need to look for five paws on a cat”

“Don’t split hairs”


Spanish

“Parecerse como un huevo a otro”

“To be like an egg to another egg”

“To be like two peas in a pod”


Spanish

“Como el día y la noche”

“To be like day and night”

“To be like chalk and cheese”


Spanish

“Olivo y aceituno, es todo uno”

“An olive and an olive tree are all one”

“It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other”


Spanish

“Aquí hay gato encerrado”

“There’s a hidden/locked cat around here”

“There’s something fishy going on here”


Spanish

“Tener sangre azul”

“To have blue blood”

“To be born with a silver spoon in your mouth”


Spanish

“Estar hasta en la sopa”

“To be even in the soup”

“To be here, there and everywhere”

Although it is absolutely fascinating, and in most cases, amusing how these expressions change so drastically across different languages, the most important to thing to note in this table is that some of the idioms listed are intrinsically linked to the culture of the countries where the corresponding language is spoken. For example, Brazilians, many of whom are renowned for spending most of their free time at the beach, may refer to something that doesn’t appeal to them as “not being their beach,” while us Brits, who are famous for drinking tea, say that something “isn’t our cup of tea” when we don’t like it. Likewise, the existence of the expression “tirer les marrons du feu” is probably explained by the popularity of chestnuts in France, which are an ingredient of many specialities such as the marrons glacés produced in the Rhône-Alpes region. It’s also equally likely that the Spanish delicacy tortilla de patatas represents the origin of the expression “darle la vuelta a la tortilla,” and that the expression “olivo y aceituno, es todo uno” came about because of the country’s thriving olive oil industry. Let’s not forget either that people receive a tapas dish full of olives when they order a drink in a Spanish bar – a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation.


In short, idioms embody not only the specificities of the language to which they belong, but also the culture that it intrinsically related to that particular language. Most of the aforementioned idioms would be nonsensical if rendered literally in other languages. I mean, “to swallow frogs” means nothing to me, for example, as a native-English speaker, but I know exactly what “to bite one’s tongue” means. Therefore, translations won’t cut the mustard or hit the mark (I couldn’t resist the temptation to throw a few more idioms in there) unless they are carried out by a native-speaking, professional translator. Speaking two or more languages fluently is only the first piece of the jigsaw (that’s the last one, I promise); translators also require an in-depth understanding of both their own culture and the cultures associated with their other working languages.


I must also add that there are certain expressions that are only used in specific geographical regions. Would any of my native-English speaking friends like to hazard a guess at the meaning of my three West Midlands favourites below?

· “To go around the Wrekin” (For those of you who don’t know, the Wrekin is a famous Shropshire hill.)

· “To give something a babby tap” (“The babby” is a commonly used phrased around my parts to refer to someone’s youngest child, or a young single child.)

· “Keep out/Get out the oss road” (I’ll give you a clue: “oss” is the Black Country equivalent of the noun “horse,” hence why a zebra is referred to as a “stripy oss” in the Black Country Alphabet song.)

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