40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally
What does it mean to “have tomatoes on your eyes?” Find out below…
By Helene Batt and Kate Torgovnick May
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?
Below, we asked translators to share their favorite idioms and how they would translate literally. The results are laugh-out-loud funny.
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.
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.’”
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).”
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).”
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.”
Literal translation: “Doing something with the French whiplash.”
What it means: “This apparently comes from riding terminology. It means doing something hastily.”
The idiom: Iets voor een appel en een ei kopen
Literal translation: “Buying something for an apple and an egg.”
What it means: “It means you bought it very cheaply.”
Other language connections: Spanish translatorCamille Martínezpoints out out that when something is expensive in English, you pay two body parts for it (“it cost me an arm and a leg”), whereas in Spanish you only pay one — either a kidney (“me costó un riñón”) or an eye (“me costó un ojo de la cara”).