Whipping the cat and lining your eyes with ham – idioms lost in translation

How close are we to the universal translators that pepper science fiction? Will Google Translate be the technological equivalent of Douglas Adams’s babel fish? For simple sentences, the service works well.
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Google Translate can even master complicated documents or, at least, provide enough to make sense of the text.

One the biggest test is whether the service can make sense of idioms. Would it translate the English concept of ‘raining cats and dogs’ as animals falling from the sky or, more intelligently, as the sense of heavy precipitation?

Let’s look at a few examples. In English, if you have more pressing concerns than what you are faced with, you may say that you have other (or bigger) fish to fry. In French, you would have other cats to whip.

Other fish to fry other cats to whip

Score one for Google! Not only does it offer the correct idiomatic French expression, it also suggests an alternative translation of having ‘other things to worry about’.

What about wishing someone luck or keeping them in your thoughts? In English, you might say that you will keep your fingers crossed for them. In German, you will offer to squeeze your thumbs.

Keeping fingers crossed squeezing thumbs

Score two for Google! Okay, so squeezing thumbs and whipping cats is a bit strange to our Anglo-Saxon minds. Let’s see how Google copes with something even odder. If you miss the obvious or important by getting lost in a morass of detail, you might not see the wood for the trees. In Italy, your eyes are lined with ham.

To not see the wood for the trees to have eyes lined with ham

Too much for Google – it offers a literal translation of the phrase. Which might leave readers a bit confused.

Maria non si rende conto che Paolo la tradisce, quando si tratta di lui ha proprio gli occhi foderati di prosciutto

Okay, let’s try something else. Irish is an incredibly visual and poetic language. It global terms, it also has relatively few speakers. Google would be hard pressed to offer an idiomatically correct translation of tá sí mar a bheadh cág i measc péacóg.

A fish out of water a jackdaw among peacocks

Unsurprisingly, Google offers a literal translation. But, perhaps the meaning of this one is so clear that it wouldn’t affect the overall translation. If you are hot, bothered or worried, you might be sweating like a pig. But, in the Netherlands you would be sweating like a carrot.

Sweating like a pig sweating like a carrot

Again, this is one for a literal translation from Google. It might leave readers thinking that the individual was not hot and bothered, but had eaten too many carrots.

So, Google is catching up with some of the more widely used idioms in some of the most spoken languages. But it will take a while before it captures the nuances of speech.

Going back to the original point, it would have to learn that it can rain old women (Afrikaans and Welsh), barrels (Catalan), buckets (Bulgarian, Croatian, German), pipe stems (Dutch), frogs (English, Polish and French), female trolls (Norway), strings of rope (Turkish) and knives and forks (Welsh).

Raining cats and dogs and buckets and barrels and knives and forks and frogs and old women and trolls and pipes and rope

My favourite variations of this expression are:

  • Il pleut comme vache qui pisse – it’s raining like a pissing cow (French); and
  • Það rignir eld og brennustein – it’s raining fire and brimstone (Icelandic).

And, if all of this makes you think that I’m talking double Dutch, or that it is all Greek to you, have you ever thought what the Dutch say when something is indecipherable? Or how the Greeks refer to language that they can’t understand?

It is all Greek to me idioms for the incomprehensible

The Dutch (along with Germans) say it is like Chinese, whilst the Greeks refer to Chinese but also to Arabic. Spanish speakers are similarly perplexed by Greek, but also by Chinese. Arabs suggest something incomprehensible is like Hindi.

Chinese is the most typical target language, perhaps indicating its difficulty or exoticism. The Chinese don’t target any other language, instead saying that something indecipherable is as if heavenly script (i.e. god’s language).

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