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Over the last two weeks, we’ve started posting some interesting expressions on our Facebook page which are difficult to translate directly, such as ‘Kolay gelsin’ (Turkish) and ’Mejor sola que mal acompañada’ (Spanish). Now we’d like to reach out and hear some more of your examples so that we can use your participation to help inspire our Facebook series. We’d also like to hear some of your ideas about how untranslatable expressions might have developed.

 

Some sayings are very much rooted in the culture that they originate from, while others rely on simple word plays that just don’t make sense in every other language. On the poetic end of the scale, for example, the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ captures a sense of heartfelt, bittersweet longing which is frequently, but not really satisfactorily, translated as ‘nostalgia’. Somewhat more prosaically, the French ‘comme ci, comme ça’ and the Turkish ‘şöyle böyle’ are both rough equivalents of ‘so-so’, but their literal ‘like this, like that’ translations mean nothing in English (and would ‘so-so’ translate literally into any other language and still make sense as an expression?)

 

Other idioms are products of the unique environment in which a language developed. The English phrase ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ (to make the most of an opportunity while conditions are favourable for you) will make instant sense to anyone familiar with English weather, but might be counterintuitive in a context where the heat makes it impossible to work. Many other sayings reflect the priorities of the culture they emerged from. For example, nature-loving Swedes have many phrases invoking the natural environment, such as ‘anar ugglor i mossen’ (‘sensing owls in the swamp’, or ‘being suspicious’). Then, there are the phrases which say something about the habits or customs of a particular culture. Turkish, for example, has many sayings around guests and visiting, such as ‘eline sağlık’, which literally means ‘health to your hand’ but is actually a compliment paid to a host after a nice meal.

 

And speaking of enjoying your meal, there are some sayings that abound in many but not all languages. There are countless variations on ‘bon appetit’ in other languages, but how can we convey that sentiment in English, without actually using the French ‘bon appetit’? Then there are phrases which are used in similar situations but convey slightly different meanings. For example, on sneezing, you might hear ‘Bless you’ in English, ‘Gesundheit’ (‘Health’) in German, or ‘Çok yaşa’ (‘Live long’) in Turkish (to which the answer is normally a variant on ‘May you also see this’.) Other cultures don’t say anything after a person sneezes. When someone proposes a toast, you might hear ‘L'chaim’ (‘To life’) in Hebrew, ‘Noroc’ (‘Luck’) in Moldovan, or one of the many variations on ‘health’ or ‘to health’ that exist across different languages.

 

It’s easy to imagine that in an age of globalisation and the internet, we’re increasingly all drawing from the same reference points when we make and use expressions. Yet the more we think about idioms, the more clear it becomes that there are as many unique expressions as there are unique languages - perhaps even more so. As translators, our task is to understand the cultural context of these expressions and render them in a way that is still meaningful in our target language, and that’s not always easy!

 

What kinds of idioms have you encountered in your translator life, or in your general life? Are there any ‘untranslatable expressions’ in the languages that you’re familiar with? Let us know in the comments below!

15件のコメント

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    gunnarbu

    Very interesting topic, Katrina.

    I could list lots of Norwegian ones, but that would go too far. I looked up a website, and it lists some of the most common ones: 'Katta i sekken' - 'Cat in the bag' alludes to getting something different than what you thought you had bought. When something is expensive we do not say that it 'costs an arm and a leg' but we strangely enough say 'koster skjorta' (It 'costs a shirt'). 'Å få jernteppe' - 'Getting an iron curtain' - alluding to having completely forgotten what you were about to say. The Swedish 'owls in the swamp' we have as well :-) When it comes to  ‘comme ci, comme ça’, we actually have something very close: 'så som så' which means the same, e.g. 'neither bad nor good'. A related topic is words that actually mean different things in different languages. The classic one between English and Norwegian is the word 'eventually' which we also have in Norwegian ('eventuelt'). In English it means 'finally' or 'in the end', whereas in Norwegian it means 'possibly' or 'in that case ...'. Very often misinterpreted!

     

    Gunnar

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    sarah.lake

    What a great topic, thank you Katrina. I have often felt that English relies heavily on idioms in everyday speech.

    Gunnar, I read your post with interest and I have had to look up the origins of the English 'to let the cat out of the bag', meaning to give away a secret. Apparently it has very similar roots to your Norwegian expression, ie. 'the dishonest practice of a merchant substituting a worthless cat for a valuable pig or similar'. I am going to throw in a very bizarre cat-related one in English, 'the cat's whiskers/pyjamas', meaning something is very good or the best. Easy to translate but the translation would be as fun.

    sarah.lakeにより編集されました
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    Katrina Paterson

    Hi Gunnar and Sarah - thanks for your contributions!

    Gunnar - that's really interesting that you have the 'owls in the swamp' expression in Norwegian. Does it have the same conceptual meaning as in Swedish? And is it word-for-word the same as in Swedish? (I always had the impression that Norwegian and Swedish might be almost, or entirely, mutually intelligible. Is this true?)

    Sarah - I had to think about the 'to let the cat out of the bag' expression, too! I was also instantly reminded of this expression when Gunnar mentioned 'cat in the bag' in the sense of getting something different from what you had expected.

    I remember hearing that in Spanish, the equivalent of 'costs and arm and a leg' is not 'costs a shirt' but rather 'te cuesta un ojo de la cara' or 'costs you an eye from your face'. For people with a literal mindset, that's a super graphic-sounding expression! And Turkish has 'göz atmak' which means 'to throw an eye', or, more loosely, to take a glance over something.

    It's interesting how a lot of idioms, in any language, fall into 'themes' such as 'the natural environment', 'body parts', 'animals', 'objects' and so on. When I asked my Swedish housemate for ideas for this article, I noticed that a lot of hers revolved around nature. A lot of the ones that come to my own mind in English are related to the weather, such as 'raining cats and dogs', 'make hay while the sun shines' (as I mentioned above). I think that not just the expressions themselves, but also the concepts that they're based on, provide quite an interesting insight into a culture and the kind of things that it pays attention to.

    I think anyone that loves languages also loves sayings in other languages. I hope we can all learn a lot from each other on this topic!

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    gunnarbu

    Katrina,

    We say 'Aner ugler i mosen' which is almost exactly the same as in Swedish. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are very similar, almost just as three different dialects of the same language.

     

    Gunnar

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    davy.martinez

    Hi all!

    This is such a cool and interesting topic. Being a bilingual musician/music lover myself I've found that some music-related terms are pretty difficult to translate (at least into Spanish). For example, the English word "groove" is such an elusive concept, it's just more than rhythm. You also have the jazz-related "swing", "vamp", and "playing in the pocket", as well the rock guitar "riff".

    In Spanish we have the terms "guaguancó" and "tumbao", which are terms related to rhythmic qualities of Salsa music. As elusive as "groove".

    Now, these are mostly single words, not full expressions, but I thought I might share them anyway. I bet every language has this kind of "elusive" music terms that are deeply tied to each culture and its peculiarities.

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    M8net

    Hi! Very inspiring topic indeed.
    I would like to propose an expression that could be hard for a non italian translator to render. and could be curious for some italians as well.
    "La Milano da bere".

    As also Katrina pointed out, the act of translation is a three-layered structure.
    The first layer, the one nearer the surface is the literal translation. The sentence "The blue box is on the table" can be translated word by word, and the result of the translation would be clear regardless of the target language. Maybe some syntax adjustment could be needed, but there is nothing hiding in that sentence that could be left behind or... lost in translation.
    At a slighlty deeper layer, there is the meaning. In a sentence like "I'm feeling blue today", although its structure is not more complex than the one mentione before, the translator must be aware of the specific meaning of "Blue". Blue in that context means that the subject is feeling sad.
    A good translator shoud have no problem whatsoever in translating a source text in such a way that its meaning can be preserved in the target language.
    In my opinion, the spanish sentence "Mejor sola que mal acompañada" (better alone that in a bad company) is far from being untranslatable; if anything, it just needs some interpretation, in order to get the correct meaning. In fact, it can even be literally translated in italian.
    The third level is the culture. At this level a literal translation can be impossible, and even the meaning could be so obscure that a sentence could not be translated without resorting to some inter-cultural analogy, or without giving the foreigner recipient some background shedding some light over the context.
    The culture is the most insidious terrain a translator is moving about. Yet, it is the environment where he/her can show his/her ability. I believe that no one can claim for himself the title of tranlsator unless one has at least a basic knoledge of the culture he is tranlsating from.
    The expression that I proposed is very common nowadays. It suggests a dynamic way of life, an hard-working attitude combined with the ability of getting the best of one's life treating oneself with a savoury bitter liquour after a troubled day of work.
    "La settimana della moda si apre in un'atmosfera da Milano da bere", "The fashion week opens with an atmosphere recalling the bustling, sparkling Milan".
    "Indagato il palazzinaro della Milano da bere "Under investigation a contractor who made is fortune with the exuberant Milan milieu"
    Few of the young people that hear this expression daily on the news, or on the TV shows know the origins of this saying.
    It all started with a a commercial that was regularly broadcasted in the eghties. It advertised a liquour made in Milan and showed busy happy people doing their deeds with dedition, great effort and satisfaction until evening, when they were meeting their friends and relax at a restaurant with a glass of that liquour.
    "Milano da bere" was the definition of the town where the drink was first produced at the end of the 19th century.
    There is nothing untranslatable in the sentence "Milano da bere", but this is an example of translation that cannot be done unless you deeply know the italian modern culture, because the sum of the parts of the sentence has literlly nothing to do with its meaning, it has a lot to do with things that only (some) italian people know.
    The same goes for jokes.
    I came across a big, interesting collection of american jokes today. The machanism that makes a story funny often plays on double senses that can be decoded only by those who have a certain cultural background. If the target recipient of the message does not belong tho that culture, a translation can be impossible.
    Here they are. https://www.boredpanda.com/funny-dad-jokes-puns-tweets/

    M8netにより編集されました
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    Katrina Paterson

    Hi everyone, and thanks again for your new contributions!

    Gunnar - interesting to know! Thanks!

    Davy - thanks a lot for your music-related contributions! It's interesting to hear about untranslatable words, too - we don't necessarily just have to talk about expressions. You know, I speak English as my first language and I'd never even considered the word 'groove' to be particularly remarkable, but when I started thinking about it more, I realised that I would struggle to even define 'groove' in English, let alone render it in another language. And I must confess that I hadn't heard of 'playing in the pocket'! Your point about music-related terms being elusive is very striking. Music seems to be so much a product of the culture that creates it (just as language is, I guess), so I can imagine that trying to translate musical terms from one language to another must be really, really challenging.

    M8net - thanks for your lovely 'Milano da bere' expression. Despite not being Italian (or speaking Italian), I really liked the idea of this expression conjuring up a sparkling city that's bustling with life. In English there's the expression 'Work hard, play hard', which might capture a similar sentiment to 'Milano da bere', but as usual with English, in a much less elegant fashion! I'm also curious about your comment that 'Mejor sola que mal acompañada' is easily translatable, since a person that commented on our Facebook page said something similar, and also told us the expression in Italian. To me, 'mal acompañada' and 'in bad company' are kind of structurally different even if they're conceptually the same, since 'mal acompañada' would be more like 'badly accompanied' in English, but since this would sound awkward, we have to say 'in bad company'. But now I'm wondering if I'm making too much out of a small difference. Incidentally, I recommend you have a look at the Facebook post if you use Facebook, since the person that commented told us how the phrase would be in several other languages, too. 

    Keep your comments coming, everyone! It's really cool to hear so many examples of quirky, difficult-to-translate expressions!

  • 1
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    Katrina Paterson

    PS - M8net - I had to laugh at the dad jokes! Thanks for brightening up Thursday evening! I heartily recommend that everyone else has a look at them, too.

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    kewtrevor

    I actually don't find idioms to be the hardest thing to translate when moving from Japanese to English. There is always some sort of equivalent that captures the main idea of the original or at least conveys the principal meaning (if sometimes losing the fun...). Some of the most difficult things that I've had to translate are actually physical real world objects from Japanese life that simply don't exist in other countries (particularly English-speaking countries). Some of these have been on menus. Do you translate 蟹味噌 (kani-miso) as "crab brains" or "crab guts" or (somewhat disingenously) "crab miso" (it doesn't contain the miso paste in miso soup), knowing that this is going to make it sound pretty unappetising to any English speaker? I usually opt for simply placing such foods in their Roman alphabet equivalent ("romaji" in Japanese), assuming that any non-Japanese speaker wanting 蟹味噌 likely already knows what it is! 塩辛 (shio-kara, literal: "salty-spicy") is another tricky one. I considered going with "salty spicy squid guts" (partially as a public service announcement!) but ended up simply romanising it as "shiokara squid." 

    Google Image Search (or just looking around my house or neighbourhood...) is sometimes also a better friend than a dictionary when some description is required for Japanese objects or places that a Japanese speaker would know from a single word or phrase. For example, I was recently translating a wonderful little short story where a visitor to the house was entering the 玄関 (genkan, the entrance area to a Japanese house where you take off your shoes). She then did something that rather confused me (袋に入ったミカンを上がり框に下ろしながら言った). Now I had read this to mean that she raised (上がり) then lowered (下ろし) a bag of mikan oranges toward the doorframe, but luckily realised last minute that 上がり框 is actually the raised portion above the genkan where you step up into the house (and where gifts are placed if you're not coming in...just stopping by as this lady is). In Japanese, this is why you actually invite someone with "Come up" to enter your house rather than "Come in"! In the end, I just said that she placed them on the floorboards above the entrance, leaving it vague. Including the Japanese words would have involved tons of glossing and over-explaining that would have killed the pace and tone of this rather brief exchange between characters.

    One other thing that I have found while learning Japanese is that it has provided me with some quite unusual phrases (sometimes beautifully poetic) to use in my own English writing! Due to the language's ability to cluster meaning in just a few kanji, a literal translation often yields quite interesting results. Two examples: 1) "雲海” (cloud ocean, when clouds fill the space between "mountain islands") or 2) on a humorous note 親指族 ("thumb tribe"...young people who do nothing but text with their thumbs all day.) 

    kewtrevorにより編集されました
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    rocypa

    Hi everyone,

    It is very interesting. I think that there are some idiomatic expressions, slangs, and contractions that are more difficult to translate. Nowadays, with social media and the Internet, new terms are emerging and being added to other language dictionaries. We have to be up to date with the new words! 

    RT this message :) 

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    Enrique Campos

    "A good translator shoud have not problems whatsoever in translating a source text in such a way that its meaning can be preserved in the target language."

    Amen. And I think if there's something that we find hard to translate is only because we are not thinking in the target language. As soon as you take some distance from the source text it becomes much easier. How would a Spaniard/Norwegian/Chinese say/write this? That's the most relevant question we have to ask ourselves, in my opinion. I am talking about ordinary expressions, not about school degrees, positions, etc., which require a deep knowledge of those fields (or good researching). 

    However, a good translation takes time —time to think or to be creative enough— and usually you don't have much time and deadlines are too tight. Also, CAT tools make us lazier. But they save us so much time...

    Anytime time someone translates "apply" as "aplicar" (in the context of "to apply for a job") an angel loses its wings. 

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    M8net

    @Enrique Campos

    Thank you for quoting me. BTW, seeing my own words in someone else's post made me realize that there were errors in that sentence, so I edited it.
    As for thinking in the target languge, I agree with your insight about taking the distance from the source text. Yet, I relate with @davy.martinez post. "Groove" is a term I come across sometimes that are very very difficult to translate in my language . To stay in the realm of music, "Beat" is another of those terms. What is more frustrating is that the more you know the source language and culture, the more a word, even a hard-to-translate one, sparks images and feelings in your mind that you struggle to put in your own language.

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    gunnarbu

    I agree that generally "A good translator shoud have not problems whatsoever in translating a source text in such a way that its meaning can be preserved in the target language."

    However i have come across one issue that sometimes is not possible, or at least very hard to translate preserving the intent of the source language. I sometimes encounter this in the short sales-ads for e.g. fashion clothes, and in the titles of the SMS-stories. This is when the title or ad-slogan is based on a rhyme or another word play that is very difficult to reproduce in the target language, What if there are no words that can reproduce the same rhyme ... 

    Gunnar

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    Rup75

    "A good translator shoud have not problems whatsoever in translating a source text in such a way that its meaning can be preserved in the target language." - I disagree!

    There are many examples where you can only aspire to get "as close as possible", but it's just impossible to nail the original meaning because the whole concept doesn't exist in the target language. Sometimes you can get pretty close, but sometimes not!

    Some examples when translating Spanish to German:
    - In Germany, there is no such thing as a "sobemesa", so you just can't translate the word directly - although in most cases you can pretty easily find a workaround, so there's typically no big issue here. "Merienda" is a similar case; both concepts, even though they culturally don't exist in Germany, are easy to understand and describe: Sobremesa is to keep sitting and talking at the table after lunch or dinner; merienda is the standard afternoon snack that many people (especially children and older people) have every day.
    - However, think about the Spanish expression "tener cara/morro/rostro", as in "qué morro tienes!". It is very hard to explain the concept even in a whole German (or English) paragraph, so you really need to think each time to find something that more or less fits into the context - even though it doesn't really mean the same!

    Rup75により編集されました
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    Katrina Paterson

    Hello again everybody, and thanks for all of your comments!

    kewtrevor - What you said about the challenges of translating culinary terms is really interesting. Yes, as with the musical terms, it seems that culinary terms can sometimes be the most elusive of all. A lot of the dishes (in many languages, I think) have names that aren't necessarily that closely linked to what the dish contains, and then of course many traditional dishes are quite culturally specific and difficult to find exact equivalents for in other languages. I was particularly interested in what you said about certain Japanese ingredients sounding squeamish to English-speaking readers. I'd never considered this because I'd never come across such ingredients (in my country, England, or elsewhere), but, yes, I can see how writing romanised versions could be more palatable to an international audience than 'salty spicy squid guts'. 

    m8net - I'll quote you again (!) and say that I really liked your point that 'the more you know the source language and culture, the more a word, even a hard-to-translate one, sparks images and feelings in your mind that you struggle to put in your own language.' I think we've all had this feeling at some point. And I do think that some languages are much less easily translatable in this sense. I know some Turkish and I have always felt that there are so, so many sayings in Turkish that just defy translation either because they lose some of their 'magic' in English or because they refer to something that's specific to Turkey and Turkish culture. The 'kolay gelsin' that I mentioned in my original post ('may it come easily', said to someone who's working) just doesn't have an equivalent expression in English, and the suggested translations that people give, like 'take it easy' just sound flat in comparison.

    gunnar - I think about the question of how to translate word plays a lot. I agree with you - sometimes a rhyme or a pun just can't really be rendered in a foreign language. I suppose the next best thing is to find some sort of paraphrased equivalent, but then again, if it's only intended to be a short slogan then there can be problems in maintaining conciseness. As with the menu terms, sometimes it really can be the shortest, apparently simplest expressions that cause the most challenges.

    Enrique and Rup75 - I'm really intrigued by the points that both of you made about preserving the meaning of a text when translating it. I guess that, as several of us have commented, having a really good understanding of the source language and source culture as well as your target language/culture helps when finding equivalent expressions. Yet I do feel that sometimes it really is only possible to get 'as close as possible', as Rup75 says, and I do agree that the question of translating terms which don't really exist conceptually in the target language is really hard. I loved the 'sobremesa' example, as I hadn't known about this before. But Enrique, I always think that a really good translator will find the best equivalent possible, and I agree when you say that time and creativity are among our best allies when translating very specific concepts.

    Finally, rocypa, it's true - it's so important to stay up-to-the-minute. In some ways I guess we could say that social media creates new challenges in the sense that there are so many different ways of speaking now (I can't be the only person who has had to Google a phrase in my own language to find out what people mean by it). At the same time, I think we're lucky that we have so many resources at our disposal now, so that we can easily look up not just isolated words and phrases but also the context they are used in. 

    Does anyone have any examples of specific phrases that they really like in another language? The ones that we've seen so far have been great! Please feel free to keep your ideas coming :)

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