Translation is not a precise science – there are so many phrases that simply don’t translate literally and it’s so easy to use a word that sounds right, but turns out to be something completely different.
There are many colloquial sayings – not only in English that just don’t translate into other languages.
If you know the saying ‘Jam yesterday, Jam tomorrow, but never jam today’, meaning that tomorrow never comes, you might realise that ‘Bukra fe mish mish’ (Tomorrow there will be apricots) in Arabic means exactly the same thing. Although a native Arabic speaker might explain it more as ‘live for today’.
A French boyfriend may call his young lady ‘mon petit chou’, but the English literal translation ‘my little cabbage’ is not so romantic!
Tell a German “Zieh deine Socken hoch” and you’ll get some strange looks. While pull your socks up in English means that you need to improve your performance, you’ll leave a German wondering if you’ve completely lost it.
If you’re trying to get your Spanish colleague to hurry up and translate ‘shake a leg’ into Spanish “Sacude una pierna”, don’t be surprised if they start hopping about shaking one leg. Instead you will need to tell them “Darse prisa”, which actually means ‘hurry up’.
Try translating ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist’ into Hindi. The online translation tool will struggle – as it doesn’t have a translation for ‘knickers’ in Hindi script. And the literal translation comes back into English as ‘Modify me’!
There are so many embarrassing language faux pas too.
There was the lady who asked the butcher for underwear in Arabic – instead of two kilograms of meat.
Then there was the young woman who went shopping in a Spanish market and asked for a tray of ‘testicles’ – instead of eggs.
Not to mention the British junior attaché in Hong Kong who, having left her bag in the taxi she had just exited and leapt in front of the driver shouting in Cantonese “Stop! Stop! I’ve left my penis in the taxi!”
That’s why it’s really important to have translations done by someone who is fluent in the source language and a native speaker of the target language. They recognised colloquialisms and common phrases that may not translate directly – and ensure that the correct meaning is conveyed.