Idioms from around the world

Our Favourite Idioms From Around the World

Idioms are some of the most beautiful phrases in any language. Not only do they reveal a country’s attitude to language, but they also provide a window into the way they view life. No two countries use the same idioms; there may be similar themes, but the expressions they use to convey universal human emotions are always unique to their language.

In the UK, you might think that every cloud has a silver lining, or that variety is the spice of life, but utter these iconic idioms abroad to your foreign friends and they’ll think you’ve gone mad.

So, to celebrate the glorious diversity of idioms around the world, we thought we’d ask our team for the literal translations of some of their favourite idioms, and here’s what they said..

1. Not my circus, not my monkeys (Poland)

This Polish idiom is without doubt the best way of saying “I’m sorry pal, that’s not my problem”, which we’ve ever heard.

2. To feed the donkey sponge cake (Portugal)

Any guesses on this one? Anyone? No, thought not. By feeding the sponge cake to the donkey, you are giving someone far better treatment than they actually need. The closest English equivalent we can think of is “over egging the cake”. That’s a lot of cake to be flying around at 4pm on a Tuesday.

3. To give someone pumpkins (Spain)

This Spanish idiom is used to refer to somebody who has been rejected i.e. they were “given pumpkins.” We actually understand the sentiment with this one, because let’s face it, pumpkins are plenty big enough, but they’re really not that tasty.

4. To ride as a hare (Russia)

This beautiful little phrase adds something of the poetic to the process of riding on public transport without a ticket. In the UK, you’d be fair dodging, which sounds a lot less romantic.

5. To slide in on a shrimp sandwich (Sweden)

In the UK we might say “they were born with a silver spoon in their mouths” to refer to someone with a certain sense of entitlement who has not had to work particularly hard to get to where they are today. In Sweden, they substitute a silver spoon for some shrimp to great effect.

6. When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain (Russian)

More poetic brilliance from the Russians with their version of the English “when pigs might fly” to refer to something that’s never going to happen. In Thailand, they use “one afternoon in your next reincarnation”, while the Dutch equivalent is “when the cows are dancing on the ice”. All equally unlikely we’d say.

7. To look at each other like earthenware dogs (French)

Picture the scene if you will: two clay dogs, stock-still in the back garden, staring each other down. This French phrase means exactly that i.e. to look at each other coldly and with mistrust.

8. The thief has a burning hat (Russia)

This Russian phrase, which means to have an uneasy conscience that gives you away, is a perfect fit for Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, to describe the mindset of chief protagonist Raskolnikov, who gets away with murder only for his conscience to betray him.

9. Pay the duck (Portugal)

In Portugal, if you’re paying the duck, you’re taking the blame for something you did not do. We’d like to try and dig the sense out of that one for you, but we simply can’t. In English, you might say “take the rap”, which comes from the phrase, ‘a rap on the knuckles’.

10. Did an elephant stomp on your ear? (Poland)

They don’t have any elephants in Poland, not in the wild anyway, but if they did, and one stomped on your ear, you probably wouldn’t have much of an appreciation of music, which is exactly what this phrase means.

Do you have any favourite foreign language idioms of your own? Please share you thoughts in the comments section below or by getting in touch on Facebook and Twitter. And please keep it clean!


Fantastic Words that are Genuinely ‘Lost in Translation’

Lost in Translation has become a bit of cliché in the translation world since Sofia Coppola’s 2003 comedy drama of the same name was released to critical acclaim. But there are some terms that are genuinely lost in translation due to the complete lack of a foreign language alternative.

For this week’s blog, we thought we’d have a bit of fun by canvassing our worldly translators for some of their favourite terms that lack an exact match in other languages.

There may well be some thoughts, feelings, actions or ideas you’ve always thought were worthy of their own word. For example, what about that conflicting sense of joy and sadness that comes when you’re eating a delicious meal – yes, it’s tasty and you want it all in your face, but it’s also tinged with sadness because the more you eat, the less you’ll have left. Okay, just me then!

SchadenfraudeThe sense of satisfaction that comes from the misfortunes of others

There’s nothing original about You’ve Been Framed, we’re probably on the 2,800 series of it by now, but yet, when the obligatory ‘old lady falls into water after failing to balance on boat’ video shows, we still can’t help a little titter. That ladies and gents, is schadenfraude.   

WarmdushcerAn individual who only likes warm showers

Warmduscher literally translates as ‘warm-showerer’, which probably accounts for most of the human race. However, the implications of this German insult are of a character who is a bit of wimp and afraid to step out of their comfort zone.


Nunchi refers to a concept in Korean culture that involves listening and gauging an individual’s mood, often without the help of clear signals. In Korea, nunchi is central to the dynamics of interpersonal relationships.

Pisan ZapraThe time it takes to eat a banana

In the UK, we have ‘two shakes of a lamb’s tail’ and ‘in a jiffy’, but in Malaysia, if something is going to take a couple of minutes, then you say pisan zapra, which is the time it takes to eat a banana.

FarpotshketCompletely ruining something due to bungled attempts to fix a minor imperfection

The perfectionists amongst you will recognise this situation all too well. This word describes an attempted tiny fix that ruins something completely. Imagine a painting with a small smudge that you try and remove, only to make a complete hash of your work. That is a farpotshket

TsundokuThe act of leaving a book unread after buying it

At one time or another must of us will have bought books only to put them in a pile with other unread books – certainly at university anyway. This act is referred to by the Japanese as tsundoku. Does it refer to unread books on a Kindle? That we simply do not know.

There are some beautifully evocative words out there that are simply impossible to translate. Of course, the expert translation team at Linguistica International will always find a concise and effective way around this linguistic stumbling block to ensure nothing is lost in translation.

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