Colourful expressions make a language come alive. I’m always surprised by how many of them exist, in almost identical wording, in several European languages. For example, it’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth in English, German and in Spanish, and although the mouth changes into teeth in the latter case, the concept is the same. This doesn’t apply to all sayings, of course, and there are some that are not merely rendered nonsensical in translation, but which are guaranteed to result in a serious case of red-face-syndrome.
Here’s a just few that popped into my feeble mind last week. I’m hoping to collect some more. Input welcome 🙂
Teaching your granny to suck eggs
I love this expression, and I can’t even think of what the German equivalent would be. But one thing is certain: if you tried translating this, it’ll have your German conversation partner either raise an eyebrow, or rolling around on the floor in stitches.
The reason being that “eggs”, which is “Eier” in German, is a slang term for testicles. (Incidentally, the same applies to the Spanish “huevos”).
OK, German grannies probably do know how to suck both eggs and balls, but their grandchildren would much rather cling on to their image of them as a saintly and innocent creatures who only get close to a set of eggs when whipping up a mighty good strudel.
I’m going to hit the sack
It’s been a long day, you’re totally knackered, and you’ll be calling it a night as soon as you’ve made it to the bottom of your 1-litre beer glass. But DON’T say it by using that phrase, if you can at all help it.
There’s… uhm… a hairy issue with the word “sack” that you should be aware of. Sack means sack in both English and German, sure, but on planet slang, it also means scrotum. The German expression “Ich hau’ ihm eine in den Sack” (I’m going to kick him in the nuts) is just too painfully close…
To run off with your tail between your legs
What’s the problem with this one, you might wonder. Dogs do this when they’ve suffered defeat, even German ones, so it should be a pretty self-explanatory expression with little potential for confusion.
I totally see your reasoning. The problem is that the word “tail”, which is “Schwanz” in German, doubles as a slang word for dick/cock. So, although your conversation partner will understand what you meant to say, it may be best to refrain from any linguistic experiments containing the words tail, eggs and sack when you’re meeting your German in-laws for the first time.
Relax. This one won’t be causing any embarrassment. But I’m still going to mention it, because it’s a really common phrase, and if you’re translating this literally into German (or into any other language, I should imagine), it will have people scratching their heads.
By any means, feel free to say “willkommen” when German visitors arrive on your doorstep and you’re planning to usher them in for a steaming cuppa and a slice of fruit cake. But as a response to someone who’s thanking you for doing them a favour, it won’t do. A German will need to hear “gern geschehen” or “bitte/bitte sehr/bitte schön”, NOT “du bist willkommen” – it makes no sense to them at all.
This explains why Germans will often respond with the word “please” (translated from “bitte”) to an English speaker thanking them, which is just as puzzling to the latter as “you’re welcome” to a German. Spanish and Portuguese speakers frequently counter with “for nothing”, a literal translation of “de nada”, which can come across as slightly rude, because of its association with the sarcastic English phrase “Thanks for nothing!”. What they mean to say, of course, is that “it was no trouble at all”.
Now we’ve got that one out of the way, let’s move on to something slightly more entertaining. And, potentially, excruciating.
I’m so hot, baby. I’m stone-cold. I’m… warm.
Welcome to a veritable hot-bed of temperature-related faux pas. Trust me, you’ll want to avoid these clangers. Here is how:
In German, when you’re sweltering in the summer heat, you say, “Mir ist heiß”, which translates as “It is (‘is’ as in ‘feels’) hot to me”. It’s a dative construction.
A sweaty-browed English speaker, however, tends to veer towards the more literal, nominative construction, and comes out with this: “Ich bin heiß”. And it does indeed mean that he’s hot. But in the… erm… randy, gagging-for-it sense of the word.
In English, “to be hot” is, of course, a double entendre, but the meaning is usually clear from the context. In German, by contrast, you have one way (the nominative) of conveying your horniness and another (the dative) for prompting your hosts to turn on the aircon. Try not to get them mixed up.
If you’re feeling warm or cold, follow the same sentence pattern, i.e. “Mir ist warm/kalt”, NOT “Ich bin warm/kalt”. Otherwise…
“Ich bin kalt” is Mafia speak for being dead (dead bodies are cold), and if you have proclaimed, “ich bin warm”, you’ve effectively outed yourself. Yes, as in “I’m gay”.
So, are there any phrases and expressions in the languages you know that are amusingly corrupted if subjected to literal translations? Please share them 🙂
[In case you missed it, you might enjoy How To Be A “Hater” With German Good Phrases.]