Lost in Translation: Hilarious Attempts to Translate Idioms

by Jean Palabrica
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Language is a beautiful and complex thing. But one tricky aspect, especially for non-native speakers, is the delightful world of idioms.  Idioms are those quirky phrases with meanings that have absolutely nothing to do with the literal interpretation of the words themselves. They are a fascinating way to add color and personality to everyday speech. Unfortunately, they can also be a source of hilarious confusion when taken too literally.
Let’s explore the comical mishaps that can occur when English idioms are translated word-for-word into other languages.
“To rain cats and dogs”
Imagine if you were learning English and someone told you it was “raining cats and dogs.” You’d probably peer out the window, expecting to see a storm of furry felines and bewildered canines falling from the sky. In reality, this idiom simply means it’s raining very heavily. Who knows how this peculiar expression came to be, but it’s a classic example of literal translation gone hilariously wrong.

“To kick the bucket”
This morbid-sounding phrase might make a non-native speaker envision someone angrily assaulting a pail. However, the actual meaning is far less aggressive.  If someone “kicks the bucket,” it refers to the unfortunate act of dying. While the origin of this one is a bit grim, picturing an alternative scenario is enough to elicit a dark chuckle.

“A piece of cake”
If a task is described as “a piece of cake”, it doesn’t signify that actual cake is involved. This idiom means something is very easy to do. Now, there are certainly occasions where a slice of cake would make a situation simpler, but that’s beside the point!

“To let the cat out of the bag”
If a foreigner is told, “Don’t let the cat out of the bag!” they might start looking around frantically for a feline escapee. In truth, this phrase just means you shouldn’t reveal a secret – there are no literal cats in danger.

“To spill the beans”
Similar to the previous idiom, “to spill the beans” is another way to convey the act of divulging classified information. Imagine a newcomer to English frantically trying to clean up a mess of beans after hearing this phrase.

“Hold your horses”
While a caring animal lover might jump to the defense of the horses, “hold your horses” is a harmless expression. It’s a gentle request to stop, be patient, or slow down.

Lost in (Literal) Translation: The Funniest Fails
Idioms are a treasure trove of accidental comedy. Here are some real-life examples of English idioms being translated with amusing results:
A German take on “break a leg”: Wishing someone good luck by telling them to “break a leg” doesn’t quite translate well. It turns out that the German equivalent is “Hals- und Beinbruch”, which literally means “break your neck and leg.” While a slightly more extreme sentiment, the well-meaning intention still remains!
The French and “having other cats to whip”: If a French person hears someone say they “have other fish to fry”, they might find it rather perplexing. Their version of that idiom is “avoir d’autres chats à fouetter”, which translates to “having other cats to whip.” A slightly startling, yet amusing, image!
A curious case of Czech translation: In English, when something costs a fortune, we might say, “It costs an arm and a leg.” The Czech equivalent is “To stojí za pytlík jablek”, meaning “It costs a bag of apples.” Apples sound significantly more affordable!

Embracing the Nuance: Beyond the Literal
The beauty of idioms lies in the fact that they add texture and richness to a language. They are a reflection of a culture’s unique history and sense of humor.  While they can be a challenge to master for non-native speakers, it’s definitely worth trying. Here are a few tips to navigate the quirky world of idioms:
Context is key: The surrounding words and the situation will usually help you decipher the meaning, even if the phrase itself sounds nonsensical.
Ask for clarification: If you’re not sure, never hesitate to ask someone to explain the idiom. Most people will be happy to help.
Online resources: There are plenty of websites and dictionaries dedicated to explaining idioms.
Enjoy the process: Learning idioms can be a fun and fascinating way to deepen your understanding of the English language.
In conclusion, discovering idioms is an excellent way to have fun while improving your English and learning more about different cultures.