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Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation
Learning a second language is not easy – it takes a lot of time and effort. Not only do your ears and mouth need to adjust to unfamiliar sounds, but you also have to memorise a whole new set of grammar rules and vocabulary. On top of all that, mastering the more colourful and culturally influenced aspects of language – such as slang and idioms – can be frustrating.

Even advanced second-language learners may not be able to make any sense of an idiomatic phrase because its intended message is so different from its literal meaning. Take the saying “break a leg” for example, which is common in theatric circles. Unless the non-native listener has a similar way of wishing someone good luck in their own language, they might find this well-intended remark confusing or downright threatening!

Of course, English is not the only language rich in idiomatic expressions. Every culture has them. (This is one reason why trying to create accurate translation software is so difficult.) When communicating with speakers of other languages, it’s important to be aware of how the words we choose can be a source of confusion. Here are a few examples:
“The other evening, my husband came home from his job upset over a co-worker who he felt was not doing her fair share of work and taking advantage of the kindness of their mutual manager. According to my husband, this co-worker, who often asked others to do things for her that she was ‘too busy’ to handle, had a pattern of taking three-hour lunches and leaving half a day early nearly every Friday without using her vacation time. Now she was trying to convince their boss to let her carry over several weeks of saved up vacation into the new year, even though it is against company policy. After his impassioned report to me of these injustices, my husband demanded to know, ‘How thick is her face?!’ 

“I have heard people described as having ‘thick skin’ or a ‘thick head,’ but never a thick face.  Being from Taiwan and having learned English as a third language (after Taiwanese and Mandarin), my husband occasionally tries to apply a direct literal translation of Chinese phrases into English. Sometimes his basic meaning is clear, as when we first met and he would say things like ‘open the light’ or ‘close the TV,’ but other times – such as when asked about the thickness of someone’s face – I’m left scratching my own thick head in confusion. As it turns out, in Chinese a ‘thick face’ describes someone who is utterly shameless – their face is so thick that they cannot see the disapproving glances of the people around them and their cheeks do not redden even when their behavior should cause them to feel profoundly embarrassed. It has nothing to do with appearance and everything to do with character.” 

Heather Schlesinger, Former Regional Research Team Lead

“To continue with the theme of ‘thick’ body parts, in Flemish, if you say someone has a dikke nek – which literally translates as having a thick neck – it is equivalent to saying in English that they have a ‘big head,’  i.e. that they think very highly of themselves.

“Another Flemish idiom I love is the phrase ‘u bent de knop van mijn onderbroek’ – literally, ‘you are the button on my underpants.’ There is no lewd intention here; the meaning is that you are a person of crucial importance, for what could be more important than the button holding one’s undergarments in place?!”

Jill Adams, Former EMEA Career Coach

“As a Belgian/French native moving to the US, I encountered many expressions I didn’t understand. I also encountered many people who didn’t understand my literal translations of expressions we use every day in French. For example, when trying to tell my husband that somebody was crazy, I’d say ‘he/she has a spider in the ceiling.’ He didn’t correct me until recently and asked me what I meant by that! The expression in French is avoir une araignée au plafond. In English, the proper expression would be “to have a screw loose.” 

Florence Mathieu-Conner, Former Global Researcher

“Danish is my first language and I spent some time living in Glasgow, Scotland. When I’d go to the grocery store I’d ask for ‘white onions,’ which is a direct translation of the Danish word for garlic. The sales clerk would look at me funny and ask if his onions were not clean enough for me!

“Also in Danish, we say ‘the drop that made the glass spill over,’ which greatly amused my Scottish friends. However, there are nearly identical sayings in French, Spanish and German. It is only in English that the analogy switches to “the last straw” or “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Susanne Ritter, Global Career Coach

“Knowing three different languages, I still confuse idioms all the time, but especially did so when I first started learning the languages. One that always gets me to this day is ‘taking’ versus ‘drinking’ my medicine. In both German and English, ‘taking’ is the correct way to say it, but in Bosnian we say ‘drinking the medicine.’ Many of my American friends have given me a funny look when I mentioned that I had a headache and had to ‘drink some Tylenol.’ The other one that gives me a hard time is ‘brushing’ versus ‘washing’ my teeth. In both German and Bosnian, the correct wording is ‘to wash your teeth.’ but saying that in English sounds silly!

Ariana Jasarevic, Former Global Researcher

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