Although I moved to the United States from Mexico over thirty years ago, I continually meet people with new accents or turns of phrase through my work. Idioms are interesting things in that you usually learn them when you run into them.
There are those that are fairly easy to decipher, such as the many regional ways to say it is raining A LOT.
‘It’s raining pitchforks’ – Florida
‘It’s raining bullfrogs’ – Louisiana
‘It’s a gully washer’ – Midwest
We often forget how strange the literal meaning of idioms in our native language are. In English, ‘Break a leg’ for good luck or ‘cat got your tongue’ for unusual silence are fairly odd when you think about them. If a Spanish speaker were to say ‘Es mi media naranja’ we would not translate that as ‘He is my half orange,’ even though that is what it means literally. In Spanish your ‘media naranja’ is your partner or your ‘better half.’
Learning idioms in other languages brings home the strangeness of some of the things we regularly say. The blog over at ted.com has a wonderful roundup of idioms in other languages, solicited from translators of those languages. Some of our favorites include:
The idiom: Pūst pīlītes.
Literal translation: “To blow little ducks.”
What it means: “It means to talk nonsense or to lie.”
The idiom: Att glida in på en räkmacka
Literal translation: “To slide in on a shrimp sandwich.”
What it means: “It refers to somebody who didn’t have to work to get where they are.”
The idiom: Empurrar com a barriga
Literal translation: “To push something with your belly.”
What it means: “To keep postponing an important chore.”
Imagine encountering these for the first time while interpreting simultaneously! During a sales presentation at Lenovo a few years ago, I recall hearing ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the first time. It truly stopped me in my tracks because it seemed that in that context talking about fruit did not make any sense. My colleague, Yasmin, saved me by whispering ‘a la mano’ or ‘it’s what is available’ and I continued interpreting.
Do you have any interesting idioms in your native language? Have you ever been stumped by one while working? Let us know in the comments.