Editor’s Note: Originally published by VOXXI as “Literal translations of idioms – don’t try to figure it out“
Language is not logical, and does not have to be: it is an art, not a science. An idiom, for example, is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.
If we hear that someone has kicked the bucket we know he has died, and we never stop to think about kicking or buckets. We hear the words together, the idiomatic expression, and we react to them with a meaning that has nothing to do with its constituent elements, bucket, kick.
We are mostly oblivious to the literal meaning of idioms and we do not consider dogs and cats in it’s raining cats and dogs, but rather the fact that it is pouring, raining very hard.
However, this is not the case when we study a foreign language, or when we compare two languages. Different languages have different idioms, which mostly escape us when translating literally.
Let us consider some Spanish and English idiomatic expressions taken literally, to prove our point:
TO TALK IN SILVER is a literal translation of hablar en plata, to speak frankly, candidly, or talk turkey, which translated into Spanish would turn out to be incomprehensible: hablar en pavo.
TO SPEAK THROUGH THE ELBOWS is what some people do, chatterboxes mostly, who speak non-stop and bend your ears and are ear benders, in short. Macario habla por los codos.
TO STAND ON ONE’S THIRTEEN has nothing to do with thirteen, but rather to stick to one’s guns—mantenerse uno en sus cañones, would be another literal translation, senseless to Spanish speakers. If we stand our ground we would stand our thirteen in Spanish.
Speakers of Spanish GET UP WITH THE LEFT FOOT, se levantan con el pie izquierdo, while speakers of English get up on the wrong side of the bed. Both are, however, off to a wrong start, empiezan con mal pie.
TO GRAB THE RADISH BY THE LEAVES makes perfect sense to Spanish-speaking people: coger el rábano por las hojas, although probably an Argentinean would rather agarrar el rábano por las hojas, which, in any event, would mean in English to put the cart before the horse, or to do things in an improper order, helter-skelter.
When a Hispanic avoids coming to the point, he is WALKING AROUND THE BRANCHES, irse por las ramas, or, in a literary translation: he is beating around the bush. Walking, beating, branches, bushes… all end up meaning that we are not getting the answer we are seeking.
Literal translations of idiomatic expressions work both ways and when a speaker of Spanish with just a passing knowledge of English hears his boss saying that he is at sixes and sevens, está a seises y sietes, he will never come to the conclusion that the meaning is hecho un lío.
Later someone will comment that the boss is three sheets to the wind, and we translate that into Spanish as está tres sábanas al viento… the sábanas are actually velas, or even cabos, but we are still at a loss as to the meaning. Como una cuba, borracho, are definitions that can be understood.
UNA VEZ EN UNA LUNA AZUL sounds romantic but does not give the Spanish speaker much of a clue as to its meaning. De uvas a peras, de Pascuas a Ramos, would be a more enlightening translation of the idiom once in a blue moon.
TODO TOMÁS, RICARDO Y ENRIQUE, as a translation of every Tom, Dick and Harry, is meaningless, as all idioms are when taken at face value. Cada hijo de vecino would pose just the same problem to the English speaker with a scant knowledge of Castilian.
There are no two ways about idioms: either tak’m or leav’em, but do not try to change or figure them out, in any language. In English cats have nine lives, and in Spanish siete vidas tiene un gato.