Fun May 12, 2020

Snakes and monkeys – on effective transcreation in a world of wonderfully weird idioms

Living Word
By Living Word

You’re reading marketing copy about an online service, and suddenly there’s talk of a buttered bread roll. What’s going on? An idiom lost in translation, probably.

An English speaker who hears a German person talk about ‘buying a cat in a sack’ (in German ‘Die Katze im Sack kaufen’) might clock, at least after a moment’s reflection, that they’re attempting an idiom equivalent to the English ‘buying a pig in a poke’. Similarly, when a Portuguese person rolls their eyes at someone and says that they have little monkeys in their head – ‘ter macaquinhos na cabeça’ – the English speaker just might think of the expression ‘bats in the belfry’ and see what they mean.

The Swedish animal analogy for the same thing, however, is that bit more far-fetched, talking about horses escaping the stable: ‘han har inte alla hästar i stallet’. Allow the cross-cultural guesswork communication to run wild and you’ll soon have an entire zoo and a whole lot of confusion and offence caused.

Don’t get your message lost in translation

The lesson, of course, is that idioms are tricky business and that hoping to save money on transcreation can cost you dearly. Imagine, for instance, not bothering with a native Latvian linguist and simply translating ‘ej bekot’ literally as ‘go pick mushrooms’, instead of the true meaning of the idiom – to go away and leave someone alone.

All languages have their own peculiar expressions, some of which appear particularly hilarious when translated. Ever heard of the French ‘avaler des couleuvres’, literally ‘to swallow grass snakes’? Contrary to what you might think, this has nothing to do with local delicacies served up alongside the traditional frog legs, referring instead to the experience of being so insulted that you’re lost for words.

Culinary references are a common theme in idioms from many cultures. You may have heard the Swedish ‘to slide in on a shrimp sandwich’, meaning that someone has had it easy and has never had to work hard to get to where they are – a little like the English ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouth’. In Poland, meanwhile, the expression ‘bułka z masłem’, meaning ‘it’s a roll with butter’, is a way to say that something’s really easy – not to be confused, however, with the Icelandic ‘ég tók hann í bakaríið’, or ‘I took him to the bakery’, which means that you told someone off. Germans have food idioms too, unsurprisingly featuring sausages. ‘Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei’ means ‘everything has one end, only the sausage has two’, to say that everything comes to an end sooner or later.

Local idioms as a way to build trust

The number of fascinating, amusing idioms from around the world, however, is seemingly endless, and the subjects referenced go far beyond food. Take the Russian ‘Хоть кол на голове теши’ as one example, meaning ‘you can sharpen an axe on top of his head’, to express that someone is very stubborn.

In the context of translation and transcreation, the key thing to remember is that native idioms and expressions are never literal but always meaningful; not only do they provide interesting insight into the cultures that made them, but they also act as a crucial means of connection and a way to build trust.

It takes skill and cultural understanding to get the localisation right, whether it’s a line of copy that needs to be translated or an entire concept that must be adapted. One thing is certain: getting your snakes and monkeys mixed up can land you in a very unfortunate situation indeed. Hire a reputable transcreation agency and get it right.