SOMETIMES LOGIC DEPENDS ON THE OBSERVER
Lost In Translation: 10 Words And Idioms Not To Be Taken Literally
Published on February 12, 2024
Credit: Thiébaud Faix
Many expressions and terms from foreign languages lose their essence in translation when uttered or written in English. Language is not merely a tool for communication; it encapsulates cultural nuances and unique experiences.
Join us as we dive into the intricacies of linguistic diversity, revealing the beauty and subtlety that can be lost when these foreign gems are transposed into the English lexicon.
Credit: Jay Wennington
In the American culinary context, Entrée commonly refers to the main course of a meal. However, the true essence of the word in French translates to "entrance" or "entry," which refers to a first course or an appetizer.
English speakers may unknowingly miss the nuanced French understanding, but French tourists in America are probably already well aware of this situation before ordering food.
Credit: Lance Lozano
Keeping on with the French language exploration, we come across the term En Masse , which, in its original language, means "in a mass". While English speakers commonly understand it as a collective gathering or action, the original French expression goes beyond mere numerical quantity, implying a unified, synchronized movement, emphasizing harmony and cohesion within a group.
Lost in translation, this nuance of orchestrated unity is often overshadowed by a simplistic focus on numbers when suggested by its English counterpart.
Credit: Cibi Chakravarthi
Originally an abbreviation for Fliegerabwehrkanone , meaning "aircraft defense cannon" in German , "Flak" in English has been repurposed to signify criticism or disapproval, particularly in informal contexts.
The shift from a military, technical term to a colloquial expression alters its essence, losing the gravity and historical context embedded in its German roots. This transformation not only obscures the connection to anti-aircraft weaponry but also dilutes the term's inherent seriousness, giving it a lighter meaning.
Credit: Jan Tinneberg
When we take a deeper look into the linguistic intricacies between Japanese and English, we unravel the essence of the term sayonara and the nuances that evade an exact translation.
While commonly interpreted as a simple farewell, "sayonara" in Japanese carries a weight of finality and a sense of parting that transcends the casual connotations of the English "goodbye." Rooted in cultural context, this term signifies a more permanent departure, often linked to deep emotions or farewells of a more profound nature.
Credit: Braden Collum
Élan is definitely not the most used French word amongst English speakers, but it does pop up occasionally in conversation. It makes this list because, while commonly translated as "enthusiasm" or "momentum" in English, élan in French encapsulates a more profound sense of spirited energy and impetus.
The original term carries a connotation of a dynamic force, an internal drive that propels action with ardor. Lost in translation, the subtleties of this emotional fervor are often diluted. "Élan" embodies a spirited passion, an inner zeal that goes beyond mere enthusiasm, and its unique cultural resonance can be overlooked when expressed in English.
Look for the cat´s fifth leg.
Credit: Manja Vitolic
If expressed literally, some foreign terms aren’t simply lost in translation but beyond translation. The Argentinean expression buscarle la quinta pata al gato , translates to "look for the cat's fifth leg". This curious expression, rich with cultural flavor, denotes the tendency to overcomplicate matters or seek unnecessary complications.
In its native Spanish, the phrase carries a humorous undertone, emphasizing the absurdity of searching for an extra leg on a cat. However, when translated into English, the idiom loses its playful charm and becomes a literal quest for a nonexistent appendage, missing the cultural context that infuses it with humor and insight.
Like playing piano to a cow
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Literally meaning "like playing the piano to a cow," this Chinese idiom conveys the futility of explaining something to someone who lacks the capacity to comprehend or appreciate it.
The inherent humor and cultural resonance in the original Mandarin phrase may elude English speakers, as the idiom plays with the absurdity of attempting a futile task.
To sing the apple
Credit: Edward Cisneros
In the world of French Canadian expressions, the intriguing phrase chanter la pomme carries a cultural resonance often lost in translation. Literally translated as "to sing the apple," this idiom extends beyond its literal interpretation in English.
In its original context, the phrase conveys the act of sweet-talking or praising someone to gain favor or approval. The metaphorical association with singing to an apple adds a whimsical touch to the concept of flattery. Yet, when transposed into English, the idiom loses the playful imagery, and the cultural charm embedded in "chanter la pomme" may be overlooked.
Let a frog out of your mouth
Credit: Adam Currie
The Finnish expression "letting a frog out your mouth" makes no sense when uttered in English, but it does have a logical explanation in its native tongue, where it means "to say something wrong by mistake which can embarrass or upset someone".
The metaphorical picture of releasing a frog adds a playful touch to the idea of articulating something inconvenient. However, when translated literally into English, the charm of the metaphor is lost, and the idiom's cultural richness escapes comprehension.
If you´re born to be a tamale, the leaves will fall from the sky
Credit: Stefan Lehner
The Mexican phrase Si naciste para tamal, elote caerá del cielo , means "If you're born to be a tamale, the leaves will fall from the sky".
This idiom is a poetic way of expressing destiny and the idea that if something is meant to be, the universe will conspire to make it happen. The imagery of tamale-making, a cherished tradition in Mexican culture, adds a layer of metaphorical richness.
A dog in church
Credit: Jamie Street
An idiom that makes no sense in English, the Italian phrase un cane in chiesa , meaning "a dog in a church," describes a sense of discomfort or feeling out of place in a particular situation.
The humor and vivid picture of a dog in a sacred space add a fun touch to the expression. However, when directly translated into English, the idiom loses its cultural connotations.
Pour water over someone's head
Credit: Jamie Street
While the literal translation of "pouring water over someone's head" might seem senseless in English, the actual meaning in its original Tamil is "to cut off a relationship", which could very well be a logical outcome if someone pours water over somebody else's head.
Beyond the literal interpretation, this Tamil idiom carries a symbolic weight, signifying a moment of frustration or exasperation. The act of pouring water over someone's head becomes a vivid symbol of releasing pent-up emotions or expressing discontent. However, when rendered in English, the idiom loses its cultural depth, and the resonance of water as a cathartic release may not be fully grasped.