11 Idioms from Around the World that Definitely Shouldn't be Translated Literally

Idioms often don’t make sense. They do, however, reveal a lot about different cultures and the characteristics those cultures give to abstract concepts, animals, foods, or even train stations.

The list below might actually get you thinking, "language learning is very legal. It’s also very cow!"

Confused? Read on….

1. Spanish: Estar en la edad del pavo.

Literal translation: "To be at the age of the turkey."

How it is used: To go through a hard/difficult time.

Apparently, turkeys have a lot of teenage angst.

2. Spanish: No tener dos dedos de frente.

Literal translation: Not to have two fingers of forehead.

How it is used: He or she is not smart.

If that’s the case then people that are balding (and, hence, have many fingers of forehead) must be continuously getting smarter. My father will love this.

3. Portuguese: Isso é muito legal.

Literal translation: This is very legal.

How it is used: This is really cool.

I guess following the law in Brazil is the coolest thing there is.

4. Portuguese: Pagar o pato.

Literal translation: To pay a duck.

How it is used: To take the blame for something you didn’t do.

If you find yourself one day paying a duck, don’t blame me. I didn’t do it!

5. French: L’appel du vide.

Literal translation: The call of the void.

How it is used: The feeling or instinctive urge you get that compels you to jump from high places.

Note: This urge is most common when you are at the age of a turkey.

6. German: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.

Literal translation: I only understand the train station.

How it is used: I don’t understand a thing about what that person is saying.

It must be hard to be understood as a German that has trouble navigating by train.

7. Swedish: Att glida in på en räkmacka.

Literal translation: To slide in on a shrimp sandwich.

How it is used: Someone who didn’t have to work to get where they are.

Next time you have a shrimp sandwich, consider the fact that you’ve become successful in life.

8. Hebrew: על הפנים (Al ha’pa’nim).

Literal translation: On the face.

How it is used: This person or situation is lousy or messed up.

The alternative to using this idiom is smacking yourself on the forehead in exasperation, literally hitting yourself “on the face.”

9. Russian: Вешать лапшу на уши (Veshat lapshu na ushy).

Literal translation: To hang noodles on one’s ears.

How it is used: To tell lies and talk nonsense.

I wonder what makes noodles so deceptive?

10. Japanese:  猫をかぶる (Neko wo kaburu).

Literal translation: To wear a cat on one’s head.

How it is used: Refers to someone who hides his or her “claws” and pretends to be a nice, harmless person.

My question is: since when are cats nice?

11. Mandarin Chinese: 他很牛 (Tā hěn niú)!

Literal translation: He’s very cow!

How it is used: He’s cool!

It looks like cows are super cool in China!


What other idioms do you know?



About the author:

Alex Alpert is part of the Verbling team and speaks Hebrew, Spanish, and English. Aside from managing business development and marketing for Verbling, Alex enjoys traveling, comedy, music, and Capoeira.

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