Lost in Translation?

Communicating in a second language is difficult. The peculiarity of idioms is that speakers often do not want to be taken literally. In a community as diverse as HBS, there is ample opportunity for humorous misunderstanding.

One aspect of communicating in a foreign language that offers particular difficulty is mastery of idiomatic expression.ÿ Idioms are often nonsensical expressions when taken literally – only through cultural familiarity are they effective.ÿ The following collection of idioms is presented in rough literal translation into English.ÿ It is evident that despite best intentions, a speaker’s meaning can be quite literally lost in translation.

Translations are rough, and not meant to be taken as authoritative.

Idiom’s meaning:
An ineffective comparison. ÿ
In English:ÿThat’s like
comparing apples to oranges.
In German: That’s like comparing
apples to pears.
In Mandarin: Like matching a cow’s head to a horse’s mouth.ÿÿ

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿ
There is a heavy rainfall.
In English:ÿÿIt’s raining cats and dogs. ÿÿÿ ÿÿÿ ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿ
In Dutch: It’s raining water spouts.
In German: It’s raining out of flower pots.
In Japanese: An untranslatable word that represents the sound of rain.ÿ ÿÿÿÿ
In Mandarin:ÿIt’s pouring buckets.

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿ
To have a hangover. ÿÿ ÿÿ ÿ ÿÿÿÿ
In Dutch:ÿI am brackish.ÿ
in Japanese:ÿI am second-day drunk
in Spanish:ÿI have a mouse (Venezuela); I’m raw (Mexico).ÿ ÿÿÿ ÿÿÿ ÿ

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿÿÿÿÿ
To convey acceptance when
something undesirable happens. ÿÿ
In English: S$*# happens. ÿÿÿÿ ÿ ÿÿÿÿ
In Croatian: What happens, happens.
In French: That is life.ÿÿÿ
In Mandarin:ÿThe heart is cold and
your spirit is low. ÿ ÿÿÿÿ ÿ ÿÿÿ ÿ
ÿÿÿÿ ÿ
Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿ
A person is a bit quirky. ÿ
In English:ÿThey have a screw loose. ÿÿÿ ÿ ÿÿÿÿ
In German: They don’t have all their cups in their cupboard.
In Mandarin:ÿChinese pronunciation of the English word “hysteria.” ÿÿ

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿ ÿ
Being too detail oriented and missing the big picture.
In English: Can’t see the forest for the trees. ÿ
In Mandarin: Picking up sesame seeds instead of the watermelon.
In Spanish: Don’t look for three legs in the cat.
ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿ ÿÿÿ ÿ
Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿ
Wishing someone good luck. ÿ ÿÿ
In English: Break a leg. ÿÿÿ ÿÿÿ ÿÿÿ ÿ
In Danish:ÿSnap and break.ÿ ÿÿ ÿÿÿ ÿÿÿÿ
In German: Break your neck and leg.
In Russian: Brief dialogue:ÿ No fluff, no feathers.ÿTo he##.

Idiom’s meaning:ÿ
Catchy phrase for living a healthy life.ÿ ÿÿ
In English: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.ÿÿ ÿÿ ÿÿ ÿÿÿ ÿÿÿÿ
In Russian: He who doesn’t smoke or drink will die healthy.

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿÿ
Description of a person who is able to drink a lot of alcohol.ÿ
In English: Having a hollow leg. ÿÿ ÿ ÿÿÿÿ ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿ
In German: You drink like a hole.
In Japanese: Being a “drink-alot” person.ÿ ÿÿ ÿ
In Mandarin: Not falling even after 1000 cups.
In Thai:ÿHaving a hard neck. ÿ

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿ
Have fun, but be careful.ÿ
In English: Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.ÿ ÿÿÿÿ
In Croatian: Put a brain In your head.ÿÿ ÿÿÿ
ÿ ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿ
Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿÿ
Much ado about nothing. ÿ ÿÿ
In English: Making mountains out of molehills. ÿÿ ÿ ÿÿÿ ÿÿÿ ÿ
In Dutch: Making an elephant out of a mosquito.
In Hindi: Making a hill out of mustard seeds.

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿÿ
Description for a certain mischievous activity involving bodies in water. ÿ ÿÿ
In English: Skinny dipping. ÿÿ
In Portuguese:ÿTaking a moonbath.ÿÿ ÿ
ÿÿÿ ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿ
Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿÿ
Please stop pushing a certain idea or agenda (i.e. because I won’t change my opinion). ÿ ÿÿ
In English: Drop it; don’t get your hopes up.
In Portuguese: Take the little horse out of the rain.

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿÿ
Finding out the true meaning of something. ÿ ÿ
In English:Getting to the bottom of things. ÿÿ
In Dutch: That’s when the monkey came out of the sleeve.

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿÿ
Are you trying to trick me?ÿ ÿÿ
In English:Are you pulling my leg? ÿÿ
In Dutch: Are you sewing an ear on me?
In German: Are you apple-ing me?
In Hindi: Are you pulling my leg?

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿÿ
It’s better to have a (little) certainty than a (large) potential.ÿ ÿÿ
In English: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. ÿÿ
In Dutch: A bird in hand is worth ten in the air.

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿÿÿ
Associated with the notion of hypocrisy.ÿ

In English:ÿÿThe pot calling the kettle black. ÿÿ
In Hindi: The robber is yelling at the policeman

Idiom’s meaning:ÿÿ ÿÿÿÿÿÿ
To disappear without a trace. ÿ ÿÿ
In English: Vanish into thin air. ÿ
In Hindi: To become nine, two, eleven.

November 3, 2008
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