I love idioms; in fact I’m crazy about them. In my previous life as a teacher of English as a foreign language, I would always look forward to delivering classes on idioms. My students would groan at first, but I loved the incredulity on their faces as I offered more and more examples of phrases that simply do not make sense literally, but which we use every day. I find it fascinating that some languages and cultures can have totally different, nonsensical (in terms of the literal translation) phrases for the same concepts, while others are strikingly similar. Translating these little gems can be a tall order, and much hilarity can ensue. I have taken it upon myself to dig up some common English-language idioms and their equivalents in other languages.
A prime example would be the English phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs”, which could be translated as “llueve a cántaros” (it’s raining pitchers) in Spanish or “padají trakaře” (it’s raining wheelbarrows) in Czech. In Wales, it rains “hen wragedd a ffyn” (old ladies and sticks), and interestingly Afrikaans speakers might say it rains “ou vrouens met knopkieries” (old women with clubs). In Greece you would hear “Βρέχει καρεκλοπόδαρα” (it’s raining chair legs) and in Norway “det regner trollkjerringer” (it’s raining she-trolls). And finally, just to lower the tone, in France it rains “comme vache qui pisse” (like a peeing cow).
The expressions “like father, like son” and “like mother, like daughter” could also be expressed in English using the idiomatic phrase “the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree”, albeit with a slightly different nuance. In Portuguese you would say “filho de peixe sabe nadar” (a fish’s child knows how to swim) while in Spanish a common phrase would be “de tal palo, tal astilla” (from such a stick, such a splinter).
To wish someone good luck in English we can say “break a leg” (particularly for someone about to go on stage), but other languages have their own strange sayings. Germans go one step further with “Hals- und Beinbruch!” (break a neck and a leg), Italians tell each other “in bocca al lupo” (into the wolf’s mouth), while the French offer the single word “merde”. Interestingly, this French expression has also been adopted by English speakers in the field of professional dance.
In Welsh, the expression “rhoi’r ffidil yn y to” (to put the fiddle in the roof) is equivalent to the English phrase “to throw in the towel”, i.e. “to give up”. In French they say “jeter l’éponge” (to throw the sponge).
The English phrase “to make a mountain out of a molehill” is a funny one. In Finnish they say “tehdä kärpäsestä härkänen” (to make a bull out of a fly) while in Estonian it’s “sääsest elevanti tegema” (to make an elephant out of a gnat). In Polish, the translation would be “robić z igły widły” (to make a fork out of a needle).
In English I would say “I know it like the back of my hand” about something that I know very well. In Turkish, however, the expression would change to “Avcumun içi gibi biliyorum” (I know it like the palm of my hand), the same as in Spanish and Portuguese. In Russian, the equivalent is “я это знаю, как свои пять пальцев” (I know it like my five fingers). In Germany this would be translated as “Ich kenne es wie meine Westentasche” (I know it like my waistcoat pocket), an extension of the French “Je le connais comme ma poche” (I know it like my pocket).
If something is very expensive, an Englishman might say that it costs “an arm and a leg”, whereas a Frenchman might declare it to cost “les yeux de la tête” (the eyes of the head) or even “un saladier” (a salad bowl). In Italy an expensive item “costa un patrimonio” (costs an estate). In Sweden they would say “den kostar skjortan” (it costs a shirt) and in Denmark, “det koster en bondegård” (it costs a farm).
When someone sneezes in the UK we usually say “Bless you”, a shortened version of the original reaction, “God bless you”, thought by some to have originated from the time when sneezing was a sign that you had the plague. It is also not uncommon to respond with the German word “Gesundheit” meaning “health”. Equivalent responses are common in Italy (“salute”) and Spanish-speaking South America (“salud”), though in Spain itself you will be more likely to hear “Jesús”. In Mongolia the expected response is “бурхан оршоо бутын чинээ сахал урга” (God bless you and may your moustache grow like brushwood).
A triple sneeze is considered lucky in many countries. If you sneeze three times in a row in the Netherlands, your Dutch friend will declare that the weather will be fine the following day. In French, the usual response to a single sneeze is “à tes/vos souhaits” (to your wishes). If the same person sneezes again, one sometimes says “à tes/vos amours” (to your loves). If the same person sneezes a third time, then he/she responds to the original greeter saying “et que les tiens/vôtres durent toujours” (and may yours last forever). A similar system exists in some countries of South America, where a first sneeze secures “salud” (health), a second leads to “dinero” (money), and sneeze three signifies “amor” (love).
So, next time you have a conversation with a foreigner and they look a bit puzzled, perhaps you’ve inadvertently thrown in an idiom or two and they are wondering what on earth a “brownie point” is, or why you would even consider consuming “the hair of the dog”. And when the rain is pouring down, you wish someone good luck, or your friend sneezes, I do hope you will reflect on our amazing world full of thousands of weird and wonderful languages, all inextricably linked but no two the same…