English Phrases That Should NEVER Be Translated Into German

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

Suck EggsTeaching 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.ย  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…

 

What did I say...?!

What did I say…?!

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.

You’re welcome!
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 schรถn”, 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 heiรŸ”, 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 heiรŸ”. 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

[In case you missed it, you might enjoy How To Be A “Hater” With German Good Phrases.]

Advertisements

84 thoughts on “English Phrases That Should NEVER Be Translated Into German

  1. joannesisco

    I am well aware of linguistic faux pas. I once tried to tell my future (french canadian) in-laws that I was feeling badly about something. Instead I said I smelt badly. The room dissolved into laughter and I was left baffled as to what happened because the story wasn’t supposed to be funny.

    Like

    Reply
  2. Every Day Adventures in Asia

    Eggs, sack and tail all… erm… let’s just say particular parts of the male anatomy ๐Ÿ˜‰ Clearly German is a language that enjoys its earthly pleasures!

    Now I wonder what would be interpreted from “Yo! Throw me that sack, will ya?” and “You’ve got egg on your face!” or “Let’s tail it outta here!”

    Let’s just say my mind is going in directions it clearly shouldn’t!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. Expat Eye

    Oh my! These are hilarious! But you’ve definitely taught me to steer clear of anything ball/egg/temperature related ๐Ÿ™‚
    My Russian student had me in stitches today when she told me ‘I slept without my back legs’ – which of course makes no sense at all in English! I guess the equivalent would be ‘I slept like a log/baby’. While some are just funny/incomprehensible, others can be a minefield! But I’m looking forward to diving in – even if it does mean getting on a few scrotums ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  4. doctorgladstone

    Things like this can trip up language learners in other ways without running into a faux pas. In English the phrase “I’m hungry” needs to be “Ich habe Hunger (I have hunger)” in German and in Portuguese (at least in Brazilian Portuguese) one would say “eu estou com fome (I am with hunger)”. The German idiom at least has a bit of an English equivalent (“I have a hunger/thirst for adventure” comes to mind). It still feels a bit unnatural to me as a native English speaker to sometimes word things as “I Have/I am with….” when in English I would say “I am…”.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hello there! It’s the same in German, if you think about it. You can say “ich bin hungrig” (I am hungry), which is perfectly fine, although slightly less common in everyday language than “ich habe Hunger” (I have hunger).

      In Spanish, though “tengo hambre” (I have hunger) is the most common way of saying it, while “estoy hambriento” means, as far as I understand, that you’re pretty ravenous ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Like

      Reply
      1. doctorgladstone

        I don’t recall learning “Ich bin hungrig” in school, though the last time I took a course in German was in 1986. I will defer to your expertise (especially since I think in one blog post or comment you mentioned being German or at least from a German speaking country).

        Like

      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Also, I’d say that “hungrig sein” is encountered more in the literary realm, while “Hunger haben” is more a thing of the spoken language.

        Like

  5. June

    This post has reminded me of something I saw years ago in France. The film “The Horse Whisperer” had just come out and I was highly amused to see that the French title was “L’homme qui murmurait ร  l’oreille de cheveaux” – “The man who murmurs in the ear of horses”. So things just don’t translate well!
    I’d never heard the expression “teaching granny to suck eggs” – my mind was boggling until I looked it up. Sack can mean scrotum in English too (abbreviated from the more common “ball sack”) but I guess we’re so used to homonyms that the expression “hitting the sack” doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Ah, good wholesome fun!

    Like

    Reply
  6. suej

    Hilarious…enjoyable read! I especially like the granny and her eggs. Reminds me of a time a couple of decades ago on a skiing trip and I had a headband with the company logo of the suppliers….Ami Chaud. Well, it had the Germans cracked up… I think warm friend, or warm brother had some homosexual connotations (can’t remember the detail now) you can explain… ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

    Reply
  7. pollyheath

    I love idioms and the like, even if they don’t have a terribly embarrassing meaning if you translate them! I could read posts like these all day!

    When I came home from work totally exhausted, the Russky said “there is no truth in feet”. No idea! Apparently it’s an invitation to sit down. Who knew?

    Like

    Reply
      1. Duncan

        Lagom I’m swedish and I’ve never been to an engilsh speaking country, but I still understand spoken and written engilsh almost as good as any native speaker. I think it’s because, for once, we learn engilsh from a very early age (I started when I was nine) and we’re also very immersed in the language. almost everything on swedish tv is in engilsh (well not everything but quite a lot) and we hear the language around us from a very early age.I think it’s hard for engilsh speakers because 1) they’re almost exclusively exposed to engilsh and rarely hear any other language and 2) they don’t really have the need to learn a foreign language simply because most foreign people already speak engilsh. I’m glad my first language isn’t engilsh because if it was I probably wouldn’t speak swedish (or any other language for that matter).

        Like

  8. NancyTex

    Some phrases are ridiculous even in the native language. Like “he kicked the bucket” (he died). WTF? What does kicking a bucket have to do with dying?

    Oh, besides hit the bed/sack for going to sleep, I almost always say “hit the shower” for when I’m going to take a shower. Why? I don’t know. But I always ‘hit the shower’.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Lynda

      Hope you don’t mind me butting in, NancyTex…

      I had fun looking up “Kick the bucket” and found this: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/218800.html It still seams a stretch to me, but I found it interesting that a “bucket” does more than ease your transport of liquids, and that in its origins it didn’t resemble what we know as a bucket at all! ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Like

      Reply
  9. Tim

    Whenever I turn up to our Stammtisch wearing a short-sleeved shirt (contrary to what everybody else thinks it doesn’t really get cold here in winter) people start asking me: “Bist du nicht kalt?” Drives me crazy ^^

    I was once walking around Zรผrich with a colleague when we stopped to look at a shop display window featuring a large sack of coffee beans. I said something like: “Ich habe noch nie so einen groรŸen Sack gesehen.” It only occurred to me afterwards that that sentence might be problematic! But then what else would one call a sack of coffee beans?

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      We can still use the word “sack” in its original meaning, no problem! It’s just good to be aware that has another one, and if someone chuckles, you know why ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Like

      Reply
  10. Nene

    My start in Germany was very entertaining to everyone except me. I fell quite quickly into the “wilkommen” trap ๐Ÿ™‚ And my first proud sentence, taught to me by my Rheinlandisch husband was, “ich habe kalt”. My Hamburg friend was distraught when I uttered that gem! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      LOLOL! There are a lot of regional turns of phrase that aren’t understood anywhere else. Being from the South, I sometimes say things that an Austrian would have no trouble with, but which will leave a northerner baffled ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Thanks for chipping in again!

      Like

      Reply
      1. Nick

        Truth hurts, doesn’t it? Because English is the main language in the world.Not the most spkoen, but the most important.I started learning English at the age of 10.I think English speaking people accommodate themselves to the fact that their language is important, and couldn’t care less about learning other languages. They just don’t work hard enough, since almost everyone speaks their language.I speak Portuguese, English and Germannamaste

        Like

  11. Anna

    Russian has the same thing with balls being eggs. Also in Russian slang, to be blue (vibrant light blue) = to be gay, so in America my social conservative mother would always give me “the look” when she’s see a guy wearing a turquoise shirt, bc that’s like waving a rainbow flag to her. She still doesn’t understand that in English “I’m blue” means something other than a coming out statement. (PS once again have to comment thru the reader >.<)

    Like

    Reply
      1. Oleg

        In Russian there is goluboy for light-blue and siniy for darker shade. The ‘gay’ meaning has only goluboy, sinyak – from siniy – is drunkard, or more common, bruise (haematoma)

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Mohit

      Dart a) because they start imrismeon type classes in kindergarten.b) because they can travel to places to immerse much more easily than Americans do.c) because so much of the culture is fed to them in English, like some of the best text books, lots of literature, tons of movies and music.d) because they believe that it is important for many reasons. Americans, especially, think that the whole world SHOULD speak English, so that they don’t have to learn other languages. Can’t BEGIN to tell how many parents have told my students they don’t care about their language grades, because the kids don’t need to learn the language Everyone already speaks English

      Like

      Reply
  12. bevchen

    I definitely made the “Ich bin heiรŸ” mistake when I first came to Germany. Cue much laughter! But once Germans have finished rolling around laughing they will tell you what you said… and you NEVER make the mistake again. I was told “Ich bin kalt” means “I’m frigid” though.

    I can just imagine someone saying something to a German guy about “Schwanz zwischen die Beine” and him thinking “Well… where else would it be?!”

    And now you’ve got me thinking about “Die Katze im Sack kaufen” in an entirely new way…

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Ah yes, you’re right about the frigid meaning, I completely forgot about that! Just as well we’ve got the comment sections for additions and amendments ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

      Reply
  13. Charlotte Steggz

    These. Are. Awesome. I knew of a few of them – but not all.
    I’ve not made any of these mistakes before but I once didn’t use my throat-noise when I said that the bar we were going to was “Nacht Leben” making it naked life and not night life…

    See also: “muggy” and “camp” in German.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Nacktleben, ha ha ha! Good one ๐Ÿ™‚

      And the schwul/schwรผl thing… am trying to come up with a post about the umlaut making all the difference, and that’s a prime example. If you can think of any more of those, pls let me know! Much obliged.

      Like

      Reply
    2. Igor

      ELIZABET Everybody learns drniefeftly. Some people just aren’t very good at learning other languages in general. However, I do know that in Germany schools are quite strict, far more strict than England ( wherever you live ). I know that for a fact!But everyone is different! Your question is like asking someone, how come you’re really bad at maths and I’m not?’. That’s just how you are I mean I dunno if you are good at maths or not but . are you seeing the jist?English is the universal language, so I suppose they would learn it more vigorously perhaps

      Like

      Reply
  14. Lisa Bevis

    I am guilty of the “Ich bin heiss’ faux pas! As a young 17 year old in the back of a van full of German boys in the summer somewhere in the countryside. It was hot. I was hot. I said it a few times. Finally one of the boys was kind enough to correct my German and explain to me why. It still makes me laugh!

    Like

    Reply
  15. aiyshah2014

    In Malaysia there is a simple Bahasa Melayu term that means ‘thank you’ – ‘terima kasih’. When I first came to Malaysia I was using it everywhere, taxi driver, shop assistant, waiter, and so on, but when I would say it, everyone used to just look at me strangely, then laugh and reply ‘sama sama’. It wasn’t until later that I learned ‘terima kasih’ doesn’t actually mean ‘thank you’ (as we would use it), it means ‘I accept your love’, and ‘sama sama’ means ‘I accept your love too’. That in fact ‘termia kasih’ should really only be something you say to someone who has done something for you out of the kindness of their heart (e.g. helped you put your groceries into your car, etc) not someone who gets paid to do it. Maybe that’s why I am still living here after 17 years, I have ….spread the love!

    Like

    Reply
  16. David Eiche

    This works in both directions. When I was in my 20’s, my doctor in NYC had a fine German nurse who drew my blood. Each time, she would approach me and say in her substantial accent: “All right, David, now I’m going to give you a big prick.”

    Like

    Reply
  17. Pingback: Friday Links 1st Aug | Charlotte Steggz

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s