I was playing tennis with a Swiss friend recently, and the third time I dropped the ball I said, in German, “I can’t believe I’m such a butterfingers today.” It’s almost the same word in German as in English, even if the vowels are pronounced differently: Butterfinger. Except that it doesn’t exist in German, so my friend gave me a very puzzled look. I explained how the word is used in baseball and football for people who catch and then drop a ball and, by extension, for anyone who has a habit of dropping things. And she loved it! She thought “butterfingers” was a very good way to express clumsiness. Which made me think that one language’s cliché is another’s brilliant metaphor.
What a great discovery for a writer! If you want to sound clever and creative, just translate another language’s overused idiom into your language. Except, unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work.
Take, for example, “paint the town red.” Suppose I wanted to avoid that trite old saying. So instead of writing, “The members of the bachelor party were determined to paint the town red,” I could write that they were determined to go out and “beat the drum,” since that’s how the same idea is expressed in German. Clever? No. Not a single reader would know what I meant.
Or suppose I used one of my favorite German sayings in a sentence in English: “The family lived where the fox and the hare say good night to each other.” It’s cute, sure, but what does it actually mean? There’s no way an English reader can decipher that this is the German way of saying “in the middle of nowhere.”
Sometimes the two sets of idioms are close enough in English and German to be more or less interchangeable. But in that case they aren’t interesting. Why translate the German “a storm in a water glass” when you mean “a storm in a teacup.” Or use “to bite the grass” when you could say “to bite the dust?” It sounds like the writer is simply confused. And is “sprinkling sand in someone’s eyes” more effective than pulling the wool over them? Does a “fear-hare” experience more anxiety than a fraidy-cat? I don’t think so.
Still, even if I can’t use German sayings in my books, I still enjoy them, and you might get a kick out of a few of them, too. Here are translations of some German aphorisms that, as far as I know, are still in use:
That’s like the pot calling the kettle black. That’s like one donkey calling another long-ears.
Tomorrow she’ll have to face the music. Tomorrow she’ll have to spoon up the soup.
The old man’s on his last legs. The old man’s piping out of the last hole.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. A sparrow in your hand is better than a pigeon on your roof.
I’m all thumbs when I sew. I have two left hands when I sew. (Question: What do lefthanders say?)
Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Don’t make an elephant out of a mosquito.
You’ll just have to grin and bear it. You’ll just have to bite into the sour apple.
Another idiom that I like a lot is what German or Swiss-German speakers say when they don’t understand something. In English, most of us would say, “It’s all Greek to me.” But in German, it’s “I only understand train station.” Why? Think of a German woman leaving Frankfurt on the train. She gets out in Paris to explore the city without knowing a word of French, but, if she’s going to find her way home to Frankfurt again, she’d better know how to recognize the French word for train station! So if someone speaks to her in French, she can say, “I only understand train station.”
Just out of curiosity, I looked up how lots of different nationalities say, “It’s all Greek to me.” Here are some examples:
Greeks say, “Are you speaking Turkish?”
Spanish speakers say, “It sounds like Chinese to me.”
Bulgarians say, “You’re speaking to me in Patagonian.”
Czechs say, “It’s a Spanish village to me.”
Danes say, “That’s a village in Russia.”
And the Dutch apparently say, “I can’t make any chocolate out of that.”
If you know a funny idiom in another language, please send it to me! You can use the “Reply” box below.
I like to give credit for photos, but this time I had trouble finding the names of two of the photographers. So all I can offer as identification is the following: the photograph of the fox and rabbit I found at https://www.facebook.com/foxandhareVT, and the donkey I got from https://bouncymustard.com.
5 thoughts on “Teacup or Water Glass?”
I LOVE this article, and smiled the whole way through. Idioms are so interesting and it’s fascinating how different nations have different stereotypes for neighbouring countries that need a lot of explanation if you’re from a different culture. I’m sending it on to my multicultural family so they can have a laugh as well!
I’m so pleased you enjoyed this, Melina. Let me know if your boys have any strange idioms to add to the list!
I don’t have an idiom to offer, but simply a vocabulary word that’s a favorite of mine – for “beeper” (remember those???), Norwegians say, “person seeker,” which I think is just such a fabulously literal term, and one that reveals the pragmatic Norwegian mindset.
A “person seeker” instead of a beeper–I like that. We describe the sound, and they describe the function. German also has a tendency to describe the purpose of a thing in its name. One I like is the German word for gloves: Handschuhe or “hand shoes.”
Hand shoes – HA, I =love= that! The Norwegians have a rather Germanic temperament, so this does not surprise me. 🙂