Most of us are familiar with idioms commonly used in the English language. In fact, many of these are so common that we intuitively know exactly what they mean without having to think twice. “That costs an arm and a leg.” “Time to hit the hay.” “It’s raining cats and dogs.” “C’mon, spill the beans!” “She’s a bit under the weather.” “Opinions are a dime a dozen.” The list is almost endless.

So it should come as no surprise that idioms exist in other languages as well. And while it’s possible to translate those phrases word-for-word, their actual meaning is anything but obvious. Here are some common phrases used in European countries that definitely do not translate clearly into English.

  • “Les carottes sont cuites” – The literal translation of this phrase from French into English is “The carrots are cooked.” Of course, this tells us absolutely nothing about what the idiom means. This phrase refers to a situation that is over and done with, so that the end result can’t be altered.
  • “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” – When this phrase is literally translated from German into English, it means “I only understand the train station,” which implies that the speaker has no idea what the other person is talking about.
  • “Quem não tem cão caça com gato” – This Portuguese phrase translates word-for-word in English as “He who doesn’t have a dog hunts with a cat.” What the idiom actually means is that you have to use whatever you have to get something done.
  • “Słoń nastąpił ci na ucho?” – This Polish phrase, when translated word-for-word into English, asks “Did an elephant step on your ear?” The meaning of this idiom implies that another person doesn’t have an ear for music.
  • “Det är ingen ko på isen” – The literal translation of this Swedish phrase is “There is no cow on the ice,” which actually means that there is nothing to worry about.
  • “Lets voor een appel en een ei kopen” – The word-for-word translation of this Dutch idiom is “Buying something for an apple and an egg,” meaning that you’ve bought something for very little money.
  • “Tomaten auf den Augen haben” – This German idiom translates literally as “You have tomatoes on your eyes.” But the actual meaning is that the other person is not seeing what everyone else sees; in other words, not seeing a situation for what it actually is.
  • “Sauter du coq à l’âne” – This French phrase translates into English as “To jump from the cock to the donkey.” But the real meaning would leave most of us guessing. It refers to a person changing the subject in the middle of a conversation for no apparent reason.

Examining these idioms and their word-for-word conversions into English serves two very important purposes when it comes to translation services. It demonstrates how word-for-word translations are so often entirely inadequate and many times downright misleading. These literal translations are what machine translations and apps provide – proof positive that any type of automated translation should never be used for business or professional translation purposes.

But our examples here also demonstrate the importance of hiring not only a professional human linguist for your next translation project, but also one who is knowledgeable about the subtleties, usage and jargon of the language to be translated. That kind of intimate knowledge and expertise can come only from an experienced language professional, preferably a native speaker.

The next time you require high quality translation services for business, governmental or educational purposes, contact a reputable translation company. They can match your needs with professional linguists who are not only intimately familiar with all the nuances of the language involved, but many of whom are also native speakers with experience in your industry.