Off topic: Idioms and proverbs that can't be literally translated
Thread poster: Balasubramaniam L.

Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 07:16
English to Hindi
+ ...
Jan 29, 2015

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Most translators will agree that idioms and proverbs are some of the most difficult things to translate. A literal approach seldom works with idioms and proverbs, and translators have to resort to more creative approaches, which could be:

1. Present an existing idiom in the target language that is close in meaning to the source idiom;
2. Translate the idiom in a non-literal manner so as to convey the essence of the meaning of the source idiom.

The purpose of this thread is not very ambitious. It merely aims to collect such difficult idioms in various languages that cannot be literally translated and which require one of the two approaches above.

I will start with a few in Hindi. Do contribute more from your languages.

---

There is a proverb in Hindi that goes something like this when literally translated:

Go nine, two eleven (नौ, दो ग्यारह होना - nau, do gyarah hona).

It simply means to run away. The closest English would be "to show a clean pair of heels".

I have no clue as to the origin of this proverb or the mathematics of it. If any Hindi-speaker can elucidate, I would be delighted.

There is another one with the same meaning in Hindi, but which is easier to understand as it is rather picturesque.

To keep your foot on your head and run (सिर पर पैर रखकर भागना - sir par pair rakh kar bhagna).

This too can be translated as "to show a clean pair of heels". When we run really fast, we take long strides and lean forward, thus bringing our head and foot close together. This image is neatly caught in this proverb.

There must be similar beautiful idioms and proverbs in your language which cannot be literally translated. Do share them.

[Edited at 2015-01-29 15:43 GMT]


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EvaVer  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:46
Member (2012)
Czech to English
+ ...
We have a similar one in Czech Jan 29, 2015

to take your feet on your shoulders. The idea seems similar.

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Agneta Pallinder  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:46
Member (2014)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Swedish too Jan 29, 2015

A similar one in Swedish: Lägga benen på ryggen - literally "Put your legs on your back" - run as fast as you can.

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Robert Rietvelt  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:46
Member (2006)
Spanish to Dutch
+ ...
In Dutch Jan 29, 2015

Just to name a few.

"Het is een waarheid als een koe".
Literally translated - It is a truth as a cow.
Meaning: It is absolutely true / It is an absolute truth.

"De kat uit de boom kijken".
Literally translated - To look the cat out of the tree.
Meaning: (I) wait and see.

"Laat je de kaas niet van het brood eten".
Literally translated: Don't let them eat the cheese of your bread".
Meaning: Don't let them fool you, be carefull.

And there are many more, but I leave them for my Dutch colleagues.



[Edited at 2015-01-29 21:48 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-01-29 21:49 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-01-29 21:49 GMT]


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 07:16
English to Hindi
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Existence of similar proverbs/idioms in many languages Jan 30, 2015

Thank you for sharing.

What struck me is the existence of similar proverbs/idioms in many languages. I have noticed this in Indian languages, but thought that was because these languages drew from a common culture and interacted closely with each other.

I notice now that seemingly unrelated languages like Hindi, Czech and Swedish have very similar proverbs and sayings. Either this is because human experiences are the same wherever we live, which underlines the essential oneness of the human race; or there have been subtle and not so obvious interactions between all our languages, and proverbs and other linguistic elements have travelled from one language to the other. Often it is difficult to say where, that is in which language, a particular proverb first appeared.

In the last couple of centuries when the West and the East came together violently as a result of colonialism and imperialism, many orientalists were surprised to see that many Sanskrit words were to be found in German. This indicates that since very ancient times people have been moving about the globe and the traces of their itinerary can be found in our languages.

We mostly use only the current versions of our languages, but languages are very ancient systems and carry with them remnants of distant pasts. It makes a fascinating study to unravel these elements of our languages and get to know the stories behind them.

Now, some more curious Hindi proverbs and sayings:

Drum-beats from afar sound pleasant (दूर के ढोल सुहावने - door ke dhol suhavane). The closest English I can think of is - the pasture on the other side always appears greener.

The washerman's dog belongs neither to his home nor to the river-side (धोबी का कुत्ता न घर का न घाट का - dhobi ka kutta na ghar ka na ghat ka).

I can't think of anything in English that expresses this meaning. What it means is it is better to be rooted in one place than to be constantly moving about. Some cultural context may be needed here. In most Indian villages, the washerman collects soiled clothes from door to door, ties them into a huge bundle and loading it on his donkey, takes it to the river for washing. He dries the washed clothes on the banks, where the sun and the wind dry them by evening. He then collects all the washed clothes and takes them back to the village. The washer-man's dog which follows him about from village to river never gets to establish and hold its territory, neither in the village nor beside the river, and is an outsider in both these places (note that like dogs, humans are highly territorial animals, and this proverb shrewdly comments on this human trait).

The English proverb - a rolling stone gathers no moss - comes close, but it is used more in the sense of a person gaining experience and wisdom by travelling, and not so much in the sense of being rooted in one place. In fact these two proverbs subtly convey opposite meanings.

If more people share such proverbs, we will be able to draw more interesting connections between our languages.

[Edited at 2015-01-30 06:13 GMT]


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Recep Kurt  Identity Verified
Turkey
Local time: 04:46
Member (2011)
English to Turkish
+ ...
Useful resource Jan 30, 2015

"The Routledge Book of World Proverbs"

http://goo.gl/MGQaOz


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Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
Member (2014)
English to Spanish
+ ...
It can be "translated" Jan 30, 2015

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

Most translators will agree that idioms and proverbs are some of the most difficult things to translate. A literal approach seldom works with idioms and proverbs, and translators have to resort to more creative approaches, which could be:

1. Present an existing idiom in the target language that is close in meaning to the source idiom;
2. Translate the idiom in a non-literal manner so as to convey the essence of the meaning of the source idiom.

The purpose of this thread is not very ambitious. It merely aims to collect such difficult idioms in various languages that cannot be literally translated and which require one of the two approaches above.

I will start with a few in Hindi. Do contribute more from your languages.

---

There is a proverb in Hindi that goes something like this when literally translated:

Go nine, two eleven (नौ, दो ग्यारह होना - nau, do gyarah hona).

It simply means to run away. The closest English would be "to show a clean pair of heels".

I have no clue as to the origin of this proverb or the mathematics of it. If any Hindi-speaker can elucidate, I would be delighted.

There is another one with the same meaning in Hindi, but which is easier to understand as it is rather picturesque.

To keep your foot on your head and run (सिर पर पैर रखकर भागना - sir par pair rakh kar bhagna).

This too can be translated as "to show a clean pair of heels". When we run really fast, we take long strides and lean forward, thus bringing our head and foot close together. This image is neatly caught in this proverb.

There must be similar beautiful idioms and proverbs in your language which cannot be literally translated. Do share them.

[Edited at 2015-01-29 15:43 GMT]


The Spanish version I can instantly think of would be: “poner pies en polvorosa” (literally: to put feet in a kind of dust or a dusty place).

There always is an idiomatic expression in your own language. Hard thing is to find it (this was easy, but there are much more difficult, yet not impossible, ones).

Literal translation never does any good.


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 07:16
English to Hindi
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Idioms and proverbs and dialects Jan 30, 2015

Very often in Hindi, the proverbs are in a dialect that is different from the one that is currently considered standard for the language. I don't know whether this is true of other languages too, or whether this is a peculiarity of Hindi alone.

For example, some proverbs use the Awadhi dialect, which was once used for literary creations in Hindi. The world-famous Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas is in this dialect. Many other proverbs are in Brajbhasha, which until recently was the dialect in which most literature in Hindi was composed.

Today, what is considered the standard dialect of Hindi, is the khadi boli, which is spoken in and around Delhi and Agra, which werethe seat of power under the Mugals.

Modern Hindi retains these dialects in these proverbs. But it makes translating these proverbs even more difficult, for in languages like English which have lost much of their dialectical diversity, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to convey this curious linguistic aspect of Hindi proverbs.

I wonder if this is the case with any other language - that is, do proverbs in them use dialects that are different from the standard version of these languages?


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:46
Hebrew to English
Hmmm.... Feb 1, 2015

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
for in languages like English which have lost much of their dialectical diversity


Don't really agree with this. There's no shortage of dialectal variation in the UK (and I daresay in the States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand et al. too). Not only are the old dialects going strong, new ones are being created: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multicultural_London_English


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