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Idioms from around the world that become hilarious when translated into English

idioms, language, phrases, phrases around the world, etymology
Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Two donkeys are better than one—'repetition teaches the donkey.'

You probably know what it means to hit the hay, tie the knot or buy a lemon. Maybe you’ve already killed two birds with one stone today, so effortlessly that it was a piece of cake. But to a non-English speaker, using these phrases would probably make you sound crazy … or should I say gone crackers?

That’s the fun thing about idioms. They change depending on the time, place and culture creating them. In other words, they usually sound ridiculous to anyone except those who normally use them.

Looking at turns of phrase in different languages helps us see the world through different eyes. And man does it seem impressive at a party.

Just think, instead of saying “it’s raining cats and dogs,” next time you could incorporate a more Lithuanian take, and say “it’s raining axes.” How metal is that?

It can also be raining old women, barrels, buckets, pipe stems, frogs, female trolls, fire and brimstone … depending on where you’re from.

Some of these idioms from around the world make a lot of sense. Others get so lost in translation, you can’t help but get tickled pink.


Swedish

”Nu ska du få dina fiskar värmda.”

Literal translation: Now your fishes will be warmed.

It's another way of saying someone’s in trouble, or their “goose is cooked.”

The Swedish language is definitely not lacking in the threats department. They also have a saying, “nu har du satt din sista potatis,” which translates to “now you have planted your last potato.”

Imagine hearing Batman say “You’ve planted your last potato, Joker.” Doesn't have quite the intended effect.

Italian

“Avere gli occhi foderati di prosciutto.”

Literal translation: To have one’s eyes lined with ham.

Leave it to the Italians to have food-related phrases. You can use this when someone can’t see what’s right in front of them. It can also be used when someone is blinded by love. Sadly, there is no “ham-colored glasses” idiom.

Icelandic

Að leggja höfuðið í bleyti.”

Literal translation: To lay your head in water.

You say this when you “need to sleep on something,” or “put your thinking cap on.” This one is hilarious because I cannot fathom getting any mental clarity from holding my head in the water.

Arabic

"At-Tikraar yu’allem al-Himaar.”

Literal translation: Repetition teaches the donkey.

Practice makes perfect, but it especially does for donkeys. Animal-themed wisdom at its finest.

German

"Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof."

Literal translation: I only understand train station.

It's another way of saying “it’s all Greek to me.”

The history of this one is a bit mysterious. One theory is that it originated from WWI soldiers who had only one thing on their mind after getting discharged: returning home. Meaning, they could only comprehend the train station that would lead them there. Others say it refers to tourists new to Germany who have really only learned the German word for “train station.” Which would indicate that everything else is foreign to them.

And let’s not forget “nicht mein bier, nicht meine sorgen,” translating to “not my beer, not my worries.”

(Fun fact: The term “not my circus, not my monkeys” actually stems from a Polish proverb, not an English saying at all.)

Norwegian

Å snakke rett fra leveren.”

Literal translation: To speak directly from the liver.

When you say something without sugar-coating it, you are speaking directly from the liver. This dates back to a time when the liver was thought to be the magical organ that produced courage. So speaking from the liver is just like speaking from the heart, only down and to the right a little.

Chinese

“Mama huhu.”

Literal translation: Horse horse, tiger tiger.

You can use it to say something is just okay. Not good, not bad, just … meh.

As the story goes, a Chinese painter who, not very good at his craft, created a drawing of an animal that looked sort of like a tiger, and sort of like, you guessed it, a horse. That story actually has a tragic ending that serves as a cautionary tale against carelessness. But nowadays it takes on a lighter connotation.

And like “comme ci, comme ca” in French, “horse horse, tiger tiger” isn’t quite as commonly spoken as non-native speakers would assume.

Language continues to be an ever-evolving and always entertaining way to not only appreciate other cultures, but also note the similarities. Words might change slightly, but ultimately we're all expressing the same things.

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