I can still remember being asked to illustrate the idiom “once a blue moon” back in second grade and the utter panic I felt when I could not wrap my mind around the expression. I don’t know why, but there’s something about those frustrating and embarrassing elementary memories that really stick with us. Fortunately, all is well today, and it is only once in a blue moon (rarely) that I cannot understand idioms. However, I’m still waiting for someone to explain the saying, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Either you have your cake and eat part of it, or you had your cake, and you ate it. Still scratching my head over that one…maybe someone can help illustrate this to me.
Anyway, after the emergence of a newfound fascination with foreign languages, I’d like to share with you the translations of eight foreign idioms to hopefully brighten your day by showcasing the awe of humanity’s linguistic creativity.
1. “The old lady with cakes has already passed by” (Croatia)
- What it means: That opportunity (of cake) has passed by (with the old lady)
- Approximate English equivalents: That ship has sailed
2. “Det föll mellan stolarna” (Netherlands)
- Literal translation: “It fell between chairs.”
- What it means: This idiom is used as an excuse by two people tasked with something that they neglected to do.
- Approximate English equivalent: It fell through the cracks
3. “Ej bekot” (Latvia)
- Literal translation: “Go pick mushrooms/boletes!”
- What it means: Go away, leave me alone, stop bothering me
A petition to adopt this expression into the English language, please. It’s so much more fun than just saying “go away!” I’m starting to wonder if the inventor of this phrase had poisonous mushrooms in mind or if that’s just my overactive imagination.
4. “Sauter du coq à l’âne” (France)
- Literal translation: “To jump from the cock to the donkey” quoted directly from Ted.com
- What it means: Refers to when one keeps illogically switching subjects in a conversation (no doubt to the irritation of the speaker)
5. “Pagar o pato” (Portugal)
- Literal translation: “To pay the duck” quoted directly from Ted.com
- What it means: To take the fall for something you didn’t do
6. “Słoń nastąpił ci na ucho?” (Poland)
- Literal translation: “Did an elephant stomp on your ear?” quoted directly from Ted.com.
- What it means: “You have no ear for music” quoted directly from Ted.com
The next time you disagree with your friend’s music taste, you can demand (in good humor) if an elephant stomped on their ear. Fun fact: Apparently, the Croatian language also makes a connection between elephants and music through the phrase “Pjevaš kao da ti je slon prdnuo u uho,” translated as “You sing like an elephant farted in your ear ().” Now that’s just way harsh.
7. “Z choinki się urwałaś?” (Poland)
- Literal translation: “Did you fall from a Christmas tree?” quoted directly from Ted.com.
- What it means: Your ignorance/lack of informedness is apparent.
- Approximate English equivalent: “Were you born yesterday?”
My appreciation for the creativity of the Polish language has significantly increased as I learn more of the hilarious translations of their idioms.
8. “猫をかぶる” (Japan)
- Literal translation: “To wear a cat on one’s head” quoted directly from Ted.com
- What it means: “You’re hiding your claws and pretending to be a nice, harmless person” quoted directly from Ted.com
- Approximate English equivalent: To be a wolf in sheep’s clothing
Although I’ve never owned a cat, I’ve heard from secondhand accounts that they can be a little more temperamental and prone to scratching and biting their owners, so I’m not entirely sure about this idiom. However, I can certainly appreciate the mental imagery of wearing a cat on one’s head.
I hope these translations of foreign idioms have inspired you sufficiently to go forth and remember that the carrots aren’t always cooked (les carottes ne sont pas cuites) and “50 steps are similar to 100 steps.”