Insights April 26, 2021

‘Blowing away the cobwebs’ and other idioms describing nature’s healing properties

Living Word
By Living Word

It’s been an extraordinarily tough year for the vast majority of people, and lockdown restrictions across the world have invariably negatively impacted people’s physical and mental wellbeing. What has become clearer than ever in the last year, though, is that nature acts as a healer for most of us.

So how do different languages reflect nature’s benefits on our health? And how can translation and transcreation firms ensure that idioms like these don’t get lost in translation?

Getting a fresh nose

There are a number of idioms describing the benefits of the great outdoors that can’t be literally translated from one language to another. The Dutch ‘Een frisse neus halen’ literally translates as ‘getting a fresh nose’, while the common Norwegian saying, ‘ut på tur, aldri sur’, literally translates as ‘out on a hike, never sour’. English-speakers will be familiar with the phrases ‘blowing away the cobwebs’, or ‘a breath of fresh air’, while the Swedes say ‘hej hopp i blåbärsskogen’, or ‘hello, jump in the blueberry forest’, to cheerfully describe something that comes as a surprise.

Though it’s not usually possible to translate these idioms literally (even the German version of ‘a breath of fresh air’, ‘das bringt einen frischen wind’, translates literally as ‘that brings a fresh wind’), the shared depiction of nature as a healer in many languages is unmistakeable. Interestingly, this also tallies with many people’s experience during lockdowns across the world throughout the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, a British study conducted in August last year reported that 72% of women and 60% of men spent more time in nature as a result of the pandemic, with 95% agreeing that spending time in nature was very important to them.

What do cobwebs have to do with anything?

You might be able to hazard an educated guess as to what some of these sayings mean, but translation and transcreation agencies play a crucial role in making sure that the sentiments of such idioms don’t get completely lost in translation. Many non-native English speakers, for instance, would understandably be at a loss as to what cobwebs have to do with anything health-related at all. Likewise, those beyond the borders of Norway might be puzzled as to how hiking prevents something going sour; in English, this adjective is typically only used to describe food items and flavours, or as in the idiom ‘to leave a sour taste in one’s mouth’, while in Norwegian being ‘sur’ is to be in a foul mood and grumpy.

Sometimes, idioms lack equivalents in other languages, while some sayings use a different set of words to describe a concept expressed by another idiom in another language. For instance, ‘estar más sano que una pera’ (‘to be healthier than a pear’) is the Spanish equivalent to being ‘as fit as a fiddle’ in English.

Transcreation is vitally important when you want to accurately translate not just the words, but the meaning or essence of what is being communicated – be it through idioms describing nature as a healer, or through the many other wonderful idioms found in languages across the world.