40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally
It’s a piece of cake. You can’t put lipstick on a pig. Why add fuel to the fire? Idioms are those phrases that mean more than the sum of their words. As our Open Translation Project volunteers translate TED Talks into 105 languages, they’re often challenged to translate English idioms into their language. Which made us wonder: what are their favorite idioms in their own tongue?
From German translator Johanna Pichler:
The idiom: Tomaten auf den Augen haben.
Literal translation: “You have tomatoes on your eyes.”
What it means: “You are not seeing what everyone else can see. It refers to real objects, though — not abstract meanings.”
The idiom: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.
Literal translation: “I only understand the train station.”
What it means: “I don’t understand a thing about what that person is saying.’”
The idiom: Die Katze im Sack kaufen.
Literal translation: “To buy a cat in a sack.”
What it means: That a buyer purchased something without inspecting it first.
Other languages this idiom exists in: We hear from translators that this is an idiom in Swedish, Polish, Latvian and Norwegian. In English, the phrase is “buying a pig in poke,” but English speakers do also “let the cat out of the bag,” which means to reveal something that’s supposed to be secret.
From Swedish translator Matti Jääro:
The idiom: Det är ingen ko på isen
Literal translation: “There’s no cow on the ice.”
What it means: “There’s no need to worry. We also use ‘Det är ingen fara på taket,’ or ‘There’s no danger on the roof,’ to mean the same thing.”
The idiom: Att glida in på en räkmacka
Literal translation: “To slide in on a shrimp sandwich.”
What it means: “It refers to somebody who didn’t have to work to get where they are.”
The idiom: Det föll mellan stolarna
Literal translation: “It fell between chairs.”
What it means: “It’s an excuse you use when two people were supposed to do it, but nobody did. It has evolved into the slightly ironic phrase, ‘It fell between the chair,’ which you use when you want to say,‘Yeah, I know I was supposed to do it but I forgot.’”
From Thai translator Kelwalin Dhanasarnsombut:
The idiom: เอาหูไปนา เอาตาไปไร่
Literal translation: “Take ears to the field, take eyes to the farm.”
What it means: “It means ‘don’t pay any attention.’ Almost like ‘don’t bring your eyes and ears with you.’ If that were possible.”
The idiom: ไก่เห็นตีนงู งูเห็นนมไก่
Literal translation: “The hen sees the snake’s feet and the snake sees the hen’s boobs.”
What it means: “It means two people know each other’s secrets.”
The idiom: ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ
Literal translation: “One afternoon in your next reincarnation.”
What it means: “It’s never gonna happen.”
Other languages this idiom exists in: A phrase that means a similar thing in English: “When pigs fly.” In French, the same idea is conveyed by the phrase, “when hens have teeth (quand les poules auront des dents).” In Russian, it’s the intriguing phrase, “When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain (Когда рак на горе свистнет).” And in Dutch, it’s “When the cows are dancing on the ice (Als de koeien op het ijs dansen).”
From Latvian translator Ilze Garda and Kristaps Kadiķis:
The idiom: Pūst pīlītes.
Literal translation: “To blow little ducks.”
What it means: “It means to talk nonsense or to lie.”
Other language connections: In Croatian, when someone is obviously lying to someone, you say that they are “throwing cream into their eyes (bacati kajmak u oči).”
The idiom: Ej bekot.
Literal translation: “‘Go pick mushrooms,’ or, more specifically, ‘Go pick boletes!’”
What it means: “Go away and/or leave me alone.”
From French translator Patrick Brault:
The idiom: Avaler des couleuvres.
Literal translation: “To swallow grass snakes.”
What it means: “It means being so insulted that you’re not able to reply.”
The idiom: Sauter du coq à l’âne.
Literal translation: “To jump from the cock to the donkey.”
What it means: “It means to keep changing topics without logic in a conversation.”
The idiom: Se regarder en chiens de faïence.
Literal translation: “To look at each other like earthenware dogs.”
What it means: “Basically, to look at each other coldly, with distrust.”
The idiom: Les carottes sont cuites!
Literal translation: “The carrots are cooked!”
What it means: “The situation can’t be changed.”
Other language connections: It’s bit like the phrase, “It’s no use crying over spilt milk,” in English.
From Russian translator Aliaksandr Autayeu:
The idiom: Галопом по Европам
Literal translation: “Galloping across Europe.”
What it means: “To do something hastily, haphazardly.”
The idiom: На воре и шапка горит
Literal translation: “The thief has a burning hat.”
What it means: “He has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.”
The idiom: Хоть кол на голове теши
Literal translation: “You can sharpen with an ax on top of this head.”
What it means: “He’s a very stubborn person.”
The idiom: брать/взять себя в руки
Literal translation: “To take oneself in one’s hands.”
What it means: “It means ‘to pull yourself together.’”
Other languages this idiom exists in: Translators tell us that there is a German version of this idiom too: “Sich zusammenreißen,” which translates literally as “to tear oneself together.” And in Polish, the same idea is expressed by the phrase, “we take ourselves into our fist (wziąć się w garść).”
From Portuguese translators Gustavo Rocha and Leonardo Silva:
The idiom: Quem não se comunica se trumbica
Literal translation: “He who doesn’t communicate, gets his fingers burnt.”
What it means: “He who doesn’t communicate gets into trouble.”’
The idiom: Quem não tem cão caça com gato
Literal translation: “He who doesn’t have a dog hunts with a cat.”
What it means: “You make the most of what you’ve got.” Basically, you do what you need to do, with what the resources you have.
The idiom: Empurrar com a barriga
Literal translation: “To push something with your belly.”
What it means: “To keep postponing an important chore.”
The idiom: Pagar o pato
Literal translation: “Pay the duck.”
What it means: “To take the blame for something you did not do.”
From Polish translator Kinga Skorupska:
The idiom: Słoń nastąpił ci na ucho?
Literal translation: “Did an elephant stomp on your ear?”
What it means: “You have no ear for music.”
Other languages this idiom exists in: Our translators tell us that in Croatian, there’s also a connection made between elephants and musical ability in the phrase, “You sing like an elephant farted in your ear (Pjevaš kao da ti je slon prdnuo u uho.).” But in the Latvian version, it’s a bear who stomps on your ear.
The idiom: Bułka z masłem.
Literal translation: “It’s a roll with butter.”
What it means: “It’s really easy.”
The idiom: Z choinki się urwałaś?
Literal translation: “Did you fall from a Christmas tree?”
What it means: “You are not well informed, and it shows.”
10 thoughts on “40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally”
Nice to see these idioms
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we need more of these, are you a regular writer
Sir/Ma’am, are you an interpreter by profession?
Yes I am 🙂
I am willing to pursue Interpreter as a career option. Could you please give me an insight? It would really help me, alot. 🙂
Hi there, sorry sooo much for the delay in answering.
I personally went to study the career of Interpreter and Translation in a specialized University.
I would warmly recommend to try and contact professionals in YOUR AREA prior to starting these studies, as the volume of future work highly depends on the specific demand for languages and scope of future conventions!
Sorry once again for this delay in answering and Good Luck!
Thank you for your time and suggestions. I have started pursuing a course provided by an institution in my city. My only confusion remaining is how to channel it in the corporate world.
Hi there, that is a very good question indeed, I personally channeled part of my linguistic skills to the field of SEO (Search Marketing Optimization) which is part of the Corporate World. If you live in a part of the world that is in need of Interpreters you might become a successful freelancer. Good Luck in any case !
I too am opting for interpretation as a job. Also, yes, it’s in high demand. Thank you for your response and giving me an idea.
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