Working as a tutor at the Miller Writing Center, I have experienced a fair share of the English language’s peculiarities first hand. Why can’t we start sentences with ‘but,’ but can start sentences with ‘however,’ if they mean the same thing? Why is through spelled with a ‘g’? How do you know when to use ‘the’ versus ‘a’ or no article at all?
I’m not going to talk about any of these English quirks today, however. Rather I’m going to discuss a phenomenon that can be problematic for learners of any language: the idiomatic expression.
The above are all expressions we hear often in spoken English, but have you ever cracked open your textbook and seen one, or read such a phrase in an academic dissertation? The problem with using idiomatic expressions in more formal writing is simple: idiomatic expressions don’t actually make that much sense anymore. They might have started off with a hysterical backstory, but most of those are forgotten today; to anyone who hears them for the first time, idioms are only a ridiculous string of words. Take a few examples in German, French, and Chinese, with their literal translations and English equivalents. If you read or heard only the literal words, you would probably be scratching your head.
- Casser les pieds à quelqu'un – to break someone’s feet // to get on someone’s nerves
- Coûter les yeux de la tête – to cost the eyes from your head // to cost an arm and a leg
- Revenons à nos moutons – let’s come back to our sheep // let’s return to the real issue or subject here
- Trempé comme une soupe – to be soaked like soup // to be drenched
- Parler francais comme une vache espagnole – to speak French like a Spanish cow // to speak French poorly
- faire passer le goût du pain à quelqu'un – to take away the taste of bread from someone // to take someone out, to kill or assassinate someone
How about German?:
- Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei – Everthing has an end, only sausage has two // All things come to an end.
- Wo sich Hase und Fuchs gute Nacht sagen – where the hare and the fox say goodnight // out in the middle of nowhere
- Das Ei will kluger als die Henne sein. – The eggs wants to be smarter than the hen. // Younger generations think they’re smarter than their elders, or you’re trying teach your grandmother to suck eggs.
- eine Leiche im Keller haben – to have a corpse in the basement // to have a skeleton in the closet
- weder Hand noch Fuß haben – to have neither hand nor foot // to make no sense
- Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten tanzen. – You can’t dance at two weddings. // You can’t be in two places at once. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
And some Chinese proverbs?:
- 三个和尚擔水無粥食。Sān gè héshàng dān shuǐ wú zhōu shí. – 3 monks fetching water results in no rice gruel or porridge. // Too many cooks spoil the broth.
- 老婆是別人的靚. Lǎopó shì biérén de liàng。- Someone else’s wife is prettier. // The grass is greener on the other side.
-虎父 虎子. Hǔ fù hǔ zi. – Tiger father, tiger cub. // A chip off the old block, or the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
-无风不起浪. Wú fēng bù qǐ làng. – Without wind, you cannot have a wave. // Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, or everything has a cause.
-忠言逆耳,良藥苦口. Zhōngyánnì'ěr, liángyào kǔkǒu. – Loyal speech sounds like the inverse to the ear, and good medicine tastes bitter. // Things that are good for us don’t always appear that way.
-五十步笑百步. Wǔshí bù xiào bǎi bù. - The soldier who retreated 50 steps laughs at the one who retreated 100 steps. // The pot calls the kettle black.
So now that we’ve looked at some idiomatic expressions from other languages and the hilarity that ensues from trying to translate them, you can hopefully better understand why such nonsensical phrases don’t have a proper place in your literary analysis, lab report, or master’s thesis! Next time you’re about to write that you think the author included too much foreboding about such and such character biting the dust, or that your lab procedure was a piece of cake, maybe think of a clearer way to express your ideas. And don’t ever admit to your professor that you finished the paper before the deadline only by the skin of your teeth!
Sources that helped me make sure my translations, pinyin marks, and characters were correct and provided the images: