Translation from one language to another is never an exact science, but especially when it comes to idioms or turns of phrase that have a figurative meaning. Sometimes it can help to have an understanding of the cultural and historical context in which a language’s unique expressions formed, but other times even that knowledge will not necessarily clarify matters—or make the literal translation any less peculiar.
Here are ten examples of proverbial phrases in foreign languages that cannot help but come across as unintentionally funny or surprising when translated into literal English, along with an explanation of what they mean.
1. Polish Phrase: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy.
Literal English Translation: Not my circus, not my monkeys.
The Poles use this expression when they want to indicate that something is someone else’s problem and that they want to stay out of it. English-speakers, on the other hand, would probably only use this expression to disavow ownership of a traveling animal extravaganza.
2. Serbian Phrase: Nosom para oblake.
Literal English Translation: He is ripping clouds with his nose.
In Serbian, this phrase is used to point out someone suffering from excessive pride or vanity. In English, it describes someone with an impossibly elongated nostrils.
3. Armenian Phrase: Klookhys mee artooger.
Literal English Translation: Stop ironing my head.
If you hear this from an Armenian, they want you to stop annoying them with your repetitive questioning or talking about a particular topic. If you hear it from an English-speaker, you should stop trying to get the wrinkles out of their face.
4. Swedish Phrase: Gå som katten kring het gröt.
Literal English Translation: To walk like a cat around hot porridge.
Someone who is avoiding discussing a difficult subject or giving a direct answer to a question would use this phrase if they were speaking Swedish. If they were speaking English, though, this phrase would be used to describe a feline performing an acrobatic act around the breakfast table.
5. Danish Phrase: At have en pind iøret.
Literal English Translation: To have a stick in the ear.
When you hear this phrase in Denmark, the speaker is expressing their refusal to listen to what someone else has to say about something. When you hear this phrase in an English-speaking country, the speaker may need to see a doctor for assistance repairing an eardrum ruptured by an ill-placed twig.
6. Japanese Phrase: Kao ga hiro i.
Literal English Translation: To have a wide face.
When you say this in Japanese, you are complimenting someone for having lots of friends and being very popular. When you say it in English, you are pointing out their elongated facial distortion.
7. Maltese Phrase: Ghajni marret bi ja.
Literal English Translation: My eye went with me.
In Malta, someone will say this to explain that they fell asleep. In English-speaking countries, presumably they will not need to say it—unless they have a removable eye.
8. Spanish Phrase: Tu eres mi media naranja.
Literal English Translation: You are my orange half.
This expression of affection in Spanish is meant to convey that someone completes you and is your soulmate. If you say it in English, it means they are your tasty citrus fruit.
9. French Phrase: Le démon de midi.
Literal English Translation: The mid-day demon.
If someone is going through a particularly noticeable midlife crisis in France, you might hear this expression uttered about them. If you hear this in English, you should probably schedule a noon exorcism as soon as possible.
10. Mongolian Phrase: Burkhan orshoo butin chine sakhal urga.
Literal English Translation: God bless you and may your mustache grow like brushwood.
After someone sneezes in Mongolia, you should say this to them in order to be polite. If you are anywhere but Mongolia when someone sneezes, saying this might raise a few—possibly brushwood-like—eyebrows.
Languages are remarkably rich and flexible systems of communication. But they can also be idiosyncratic, quirky, and inadvertently amusing. Taking the time to learn a bit about some of the more peculiar turns of phrase in a foreign language can help you avoid an embarrassing, accidental slip of the tongue.