The following post is from Paul, an English teacher who lives in Argentina. Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language teaching service which offers foreign-language level tests as well as other free language-learning resources on their website. Check out their Facebook page or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
You’re relaxing with your friends on a Friday night, and you’re about to order another round of beers. But to your surprise, one of your friends has already downed three beers — as well as two shots of whiskey and a Long Island Iced Tea. “He drinks like a fish,” you might say. But if you were speaking another language, you might say that he drinks like a cow, a horse, a sponge, or even a rainbow! Indeed, while idiomatic expressions across the world often deal with the same themes, many times they use quite different vocabulary to express them. Here’s some popular idioms in English, as well as their foreign-language equivalents.
1. A bull in a china shop
If you’re in a China shop, you’d better be careful so as to avoid breaking the delicate ceramics. As such, you should probably leave your pet bull at home. Indeed, someone who is being reckless or careless in their use of force can be described as “a bull in a china shop”.
But if you’re not speaking English, the animal of choice is more likely to be an elephant:
Italian: un elefante in un negozio di cristalli — “an elephant in a china shop”
Turkish: züccaciye dükkanındaki fil gibi — “an elephant in a glassware store”
French: un éléphant dans un magasin de porcelaine — “an elephant in a porcelain store”
Russian: как слон в посудной лавке — “an elephant in a glassware shop”
Indeed, English seems to be in the minority here. But it’s not the only language to talk about bulls in this context — in Greek, “Σὰν ταῦρος ἐν ὑαλοπωλείῳ” translates to “a bull in a glassware store”.
2. He drinks like a fish
Somebody who “drinks like a fish” (like our aforementioned friend) has no problem consuming copious quantities of alcohol. Incidentally, this expression isn’t totally logical, as freshwater fish don’t actually drink, but rather absorb water passively through their gills. Perhaps noting this fallacy, other languages opt to use different animals in their equivalents to this idiom:
Portuguese: Bebe feito uma vaca — “He drinks like a cow”
Hungarian: Iszik, mint a gödény — “He drinks like a pelican”
Serbian: Pije kao smuk — “He drinks like a snake”
Others opt away from animals, and instead use specialists in certain crafts, who are presumably rumored to have a taste for alcohol:
Catalan: Beure com un cadirer — “He drinks like a chairmaker”
Russian: пить как сапожник — “He drinks like a shoemaker”
And others still use inanimate objects like sponges, holes, or rainbows to make the point:
Finnish: Juo kuin sieni — “He drinks like a sponge”
French: Il boit comme un trou — “He drinks like a hole”
Czech: Pije jako duha — “He drinks like a rainbow”
3. The pot is calling the kettle black
Remember your friend who drank all the whiskey and Long Island Iced Tea? Well, if one day he accused you of over-imbibing, you might say to him, “The pot is calling the kettle black”, a gentle way to point out hypocrisy. Indeed, this metaphor holds cross-linguistically:
Dutch: De pot verwijt de ketel dat hij zwart ziet — “The pot reproaches the kettle for looking black”
Estonian: Pada sõimab katelt, ühed mustad mõlemad — “The pot reproaches the kettle, but they are both black”
Lithuanian: juokiasi puodas, kad katilas juodas — “The pot laughs that the cauldron is black”
But in other languages, the emphasis shifts from kitchenware to animals:
Arabic: الجمل لايرى عوجة رقبته — “The camel doesn’t see the crookedness of its own neck”
Chinese: 龜笑鱉無尾 — “The turtle makes fun of the other turtle’s short tail”
Greek: είπε ο γάιδαρος τον πετεινό κεφάλα – “The donkey calls the rooster bull-headed”
4. A bad workman always blames his tools
If you accidentally burnt the casserole you made for dinner, you might try to blame the oven. But your silver-tongued roommate is having none of that, and tells you, “A bad workman always blames his tools”. This means that those who lack skill tend to blame the objects at their disposal, and is a direct affront to your cooking ability.
In other languages, however, the metaphor is a bit more on the artsy side:
Korean: 명필은 붓을 탓하지 않는다 — “A good calligrapher doesn’t blame the writing brush”
Polish: Złej baletnicy przeszkadza rąbek u spódnicy — “A bad ballerina is disturbed by the hem of her skirt”
Sometimes, animals take the place of tools as the scapegoat:
German: Wenn der Reiter nichts taugt, hat das Pferd Schuld — “If the horseman is not good, the horse is to blamed for it”
Spanish: Cuando el arriero es malo, le echa la culpa a los burros — “When the wagoner is bad, he blames the donkeys”
Also, in many languages, brides’ dancing skills are held under particular scrutiny:
Turkish: Oynamayan gelin yerim dar dermiş — “The bride who doesn’t dance says the space is narrow”
Farsi: Aroos nemitoone beraghse mige otagh kaje — “A bride who doesn’t know how to dance says the room is slanted”
5. It’s raining cats and dogs
This one has an interesting and grim origin: supposedly, in seventeenth-century England, heavy rains were often accompanied by wash-up of debris, which included animal carcasses. Thus, “raining cats and dogs” referred to the dead animals that appeared after rainstorms.
Luckily, most languages do without this grisly imagery, instead using the common bucket to describe periods of heavy rainfall:
Spanish: Está lloviendo a cántaros — “It’s raining buckets”
Russian: льëт как из ведра — “It’s pouring as if out of a bucket”
German: Es regnet wie aus Eimern — “It’s raining as if out of a bucket”.
Other expressions are more creative and more eyebrow-raising. In Dutch, for instance, het regent oude wijven means — for unknown reasons — that it’s “raining old hags”. And in Colombian Spanish, Está lloviendo hasta maridos — “It’s even raining husbands” — shows that neither hags nor husbands are safe from rainstorms.
6. Too many cooks spoil the broth
If you have too many people doing one job, it might not get completed to your liking. In English, we express this by saying that “too many cooks spoil the broth”. German follows suit, saying that “Zu viele Köche verderben den Brei”, or “too many cooks spoil the porridge”. Finnish, too, sticks with the innocent cooking metaphor, saying “Mitä useampi kokki, sitä huonompi soppa” (“the more cooks, the worse the soup”).
But then along comes Russian to turn an ordinary metaphor into something horrific: in Russian, you can express this sentiment by saying “У семи нянек дитя без глаза”, which translate to “seven nannies have a child without an eye”.
7. Cross my heart and hope to die
But it’s not just Russian that has a healthy dose of morbidity in their metaphors. In English, we use an eerily morbid expression just to convince someone that we’re telling the truth — “cross my heart and hope to die” (often followed by the even-more-gruesome “stick a needle in my eye”). This does seem to be a trend cross-linguistically, with each language finding a different violent way to express the importance of honesty:
French: Croix de bois, croix de fer, si je mens, je vais en enfer — “Wooden cross, iron cross, if I lie, I go to hell”
Greek: Να πέσει φωτιά να με κάψει — “fire to fall and char me”
Japanese: 指きりげんまん嘘ついたら針千本飲ます — “Fingers crossed, punch you ten thousand times, when you lie, may you swallow a thousand needles”
Cantonese: 講大話甩大牙 — “You’ll lose your molars if you tell lies”
Though different languages vary in how they express certain ideas — from alcoholic shoemakers to camels with crooked necks to elephants in glassware stores to eye-less children (thanks again for that one, Russian) — it’s remarkable that the same idiomatic concept translates so readily into different languages. This shows us that, despite linguistic and cultural differences, humans often face the same experiences, and are armed with different phrases and metaphors to describe them.
Do you have anything you can add to this list? What are your favorite foreign-language versions of familiar idioms? Let us know by leaving a comment!