Don’t get lost in translation

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Languages and its idioms are an essential feature of humanity. They combine speech with traits of history, mannerisms, customs and culture, giving meaning to the art of communication. But sometimes words and expressions are not that obvious. And if they are literally translated from one language to another things can get confusing, funny or even embarrassing.

Idiomatic expressions –also known as idioms– are rich language tools that can be found in every language across the globe, from Abaza and Abkhaz to Zulu and Zuni. They give colour, humour and meaning to communication using figurative forms of speech that can only be explained by that language’s unique history.

Let’s see some examples. Say you flew to Brazil to enjoy some nice time off. While walking downtown in Rio you pass by a group of people, all of them energetically speaking about something, but your Portuguese language skills are still not sharp enough to understand it. You manage however to hear something that you automatically translates into “go comb a monkey” … and as amusing as it can sound, that Brazilian Portuguese idiom is actually saying something like “get off” or “leave me alone” – not as pet-fluffy as you thought right?

Idioms - Brazilian Portuguese (to comb a monkey)

Now you moved to Switzerland and you are getting familiar with Schwiizerdütsch (or Swiss German). You brought all your documents to the registration office at the town-hall, and as you deliver your medical records, the officer tells you something that you translates into “give it to the rabbits” … you are again dreaming about fluffy animals, but in fact, the officer meant that the medical records were not needed for your registration.

Idioms - Swiss German (give it to rabbits)

As you can see, idioms are usually very simple ideas encapsulated in complex language structures and cultural values. They can tell a lot about a culture and about the development of languages within that environment. They can go as far as to explain or hint about how societies see and understand the world around them. Just like learning a new language, idioms can be as insightful and magnificent as the discovery of a new universe.

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Send us an idiom in your native language via comments and get a chance to be featured in our series!

 

❝If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.❞   – Nelson Mandela.

 

(1) “to comb a monkey” or “pentear macaco” in Brazilian Portuguese means to get off or to stop bothering someone;

(2) “you can give it to the rabbits” or “da chasch de haase gäh” in Swiss German means something is not needed, or it has low quality;

 

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