Lost In Translation: Every language has its ready-made expressions

When an idiom, saying, proverb or ready-made expression is translated into another language and, because of differences of the languages, some of the original meaning is lost. Due to the original meaning can not be perfectly translated into the other language. So you have to rephrase or say what you mean in a totally different way.

The common and very familiar Spanish expression “contigo pan y cebolla” is used in Spain in a humoristic way to let your partner know “how deep is your love” but means literally “with you bread and onions“. The fact that a couple may not have a lot of money is not an obstacle for them to get married and live a happy life as long as they love each other. The idea of “contigo pan y cebolla” may be expressed in English with expressions like: with you through thick and thin, against all odds; If I am with you I do not need anything else; I’ll forbear any burden in life being with you. Although not any of those has the accurate meaning of the Spanish expression.

By and large we express what we mean with the help of proverbs, sayings or ready-made phrases, We often have the tendency to translate them word-for-word in the middle of the conversation with a foreign friend and without us being actually aware of it. That, instead of clarify the meaning, has an opposite effect. People who do that “no tiene dos dedos de frente” (literally: Not having two fingers of forehead, but it is used as: He/She is not smart) because you can make a big mistake or make a tactless remark: “meter la pata” (you can make a bit of a blunder).

Normally these remarks are innocent and never intentional, but can nevertheless lead to embarrassing and tense situations, and sometimes may even have some unpleasant consequences. More often than not, however, these type of mistakes and inappropriate comments have no major consequences and with time become funny anecdotes. Conversely, your interlocutor may think that you “estas como una cabra”. This is another commonly used Spanish idiom for when somebody is doing something bizarre or a little out of the ordinary. The literal translation is “to be like a goat” and the English equivalent is saying someone is a little nuts or crazy. So if you translate to a foreign friend Spanish expressions literally, you might say: “tu estás como una cabra.(you are a little crazy.) Or They might think you are “corto de luces” literally, “short of lights,” in English “not the brightest bulb on the tree.In this site you can find 100 ways to say “not the brightest bulb on the tree.

Those phrases, idioms or ready-made expressions, which, taken out of their original context, or to the ears of a foreigner, sound so very bizarre. When you think carefully about the words that make up these idioms, you realize there is a major leap from the literal meaning to the figurative meaning, and that’s where it gets funny.

On the other hand, people use them on a daily basis, but often don’t know about their origins. They may not stop to reflect on some of the expressions that come out of their mouth, but to other people, some of these idioms can be truly shocking. For instance “Estar en Babia” (to be in Babia) means “to be distracted or inattentive”, but where this expression comes from back in the Middle Ages, when León was a kingdom, the royal family lived in their palace in the city of León, but they used to come to Babia to hunt and fish. And when people requested an audience with the king, the chamberlain used to say he was in Babia, he was away of the bustle and noise of the city, he was absent, missing ….In Spain “to be in Babia” means having your mind in one place and your body in another.

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But to learn a language is better no tener pelos en la lenguanot to have hairs on your tongue”, meaning that someone is a straight shooter and will always speak their mind. And don’t Tomar el pelo (to take the hair) to your teacher, used when someone is tricking or making fun of someone else, but in a good-natured way: to pull your teacher’s leg.

Resources for Learning Spanish Idioms

15 Common Spanish Idioms

To be healthier than a pear: Funny Spanish idioms: Nice collection of funny Spanish idioms here, with many new ones.

Catalog of Spanish Expression Proverbs

Why do the Spanish “shit in the sea”?

Spanish Phrases That Literally Make No Sense

9 ridiculously useful Spanish expressions: Great post that also includes embedded sound files.

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Practical Precepts: Proverbs

Every culture has a collection of wise sayings that offer advice about how to live your life. These sayings are called “proverbs” (practical precepts). Very often these pieces of advice, precepts or principles of one culture are precepts or principles of another, for they are an outgrowth of common experiences.

Each language has its own proverbs. Although the phrasing is unique and contributes to the color of the language, many proverbs convey similar meanings in different forms. For example, the Spanish proverb “Más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando” (“A bird in the hand is worth more than a hundred flying”) finds an equivalent in the English proverb: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, in the Dutch proverb: “better one bird in the hand than ten in the air” and in the German proverb: “Lieber den Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach” (Better the sparrow in the hand than the pigeon on the roof).

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“A rolling stone gathers no moss”

Interpreting proverbs is often complex, moreover, interpreting proverbs from other cultures is much more difficult than interpreting proverbs in ones own culture.
Even within English-speaking cultures, there is difference of opinion on how to interpret the proverb “A rolling stone gathers no moss”. Some see it as condemning a person that keeps moving, seeing moss as a positive thing, such as profit; others see it the proverb as praising people that keep moving and developing, seeing moss as a negative thing, such as negative habits. Bob Dylan’s 1965 song “Like a Rolling Stone” may refer to the original proverb.

Not all who wander are lost

Not all those who wander are lost

Some authors have created proverbs in their writings, such a J.R.R. Tolkien, and some of these proverbs have made their way into broader society, such as the bumper sticker pictured here:

 

“Not all those who wander are lost”, a line from the poem “All That is Gold Does Not Glitter” (some things are not as valuable as they appear to be) written by J. R. R. Tolkien for his fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. The poem reads:

All that is gold does not glitter

“All That is Gold Does Not Glitter”

Proverbs are used by speakers for a variety of purposes. Sometimes they are used as a way of saying something gently, in a veiled way:
“Two’s Company, but Three’s a Crowd” (couples often enjoy their privacy and dislike having a third person around). This is a proverb, a saying which expresses a general truth. It is not at all impolite, rude, or obscene when used to express a general truth. However, you make it impolite when you use it as a sort of weapon in conversation, a way of suggesting that someone else is in the way and ought to leave.

two is a company but three is a crowd

“Two’s Company, but Three’s a Crowd”

Other times, they are used to carry more weight in a discussion, to support his position, or even to argue:“Actions Speak Louder Than Words” (people’s actions are more convincing than their words are)

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Proverbs can also be used to simply make a conversation or discussion more lively. In many parts of the world, the use of proverbs is a mark of being a good orator:

 

There are often proverbs that contradict each other, such as “Look before you leap” (consider all aspects of a situation before you take any action) and “He who hesitates is lost.” (a person who doesn’t act decisively is unlikely to succeed) These have been labelled “counter proverbs”. “Counter proverbs” are not the same as a “paradoxical proverb”, a proverb that contains a seeming paradox: “The pen is mightier than sword” (the written word is more powerful than physical force) but “Actions speak louder than words”

 

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The Book of Proverbs is a collection of moral and religious teachings in the form of sayings and proverbs. From The Book of Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible we can conclude with this one:

“A fool can use a proverb about as well as a crippled man can use his legs” (Proverbs 26:7)