There’s nothing quite like idioms. Oftentimes they are culturally unique, and offer a glimpse into a country’s history and language.
They can also be incredibly difficult to understand for a non-native speaker, and even harder to translate. At first, the literal translations of foreign idioms are confusing, but most are rooted in mythological lore, historical events, or day-to-day life. As a result, they need to be contextualized to make sense.
Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting idioms across the globe, and their English translations.
Katzensprung – “A cat’s jump”
If you’re only a short distance from your destination, you’re only a cat’s jump away.
Wer weiß, warum die Gänse barfuß gehen – “Who knows why the geese go barefoot”
Ever had someone complain about life, and you just think, “That’s just how it is”? This idiom captures the feeling of taking life’s many problems as they come.
Eine extrawurst verlangen – “To ask for an extra sausage”
If you’re asking for special treatment in Germany, you might get told that you’re asking for an extra sausage.
Das leben ist keine ponyhof – “Life is not a pony yard”
When you don’t get that “extrawurst,” maybe you’ll start complaining. In that case, you’ll be informed that life isn’t a pony yard—meaning that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
猿も木から落ちる – “Even monkeys fall from trees”
Everyone makes mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up too much about it.
我田引水 – “Drawing water to one’s own rice paddy.”
Specific to Japan and its history with rice farming, this idiom refers to actions that are solely made to improve one’s own situation.
見ぬが花 – “Not seeing is a flower”
Reality rarely lives up to our imaginations, and this saying encapsulates the idea that in our imagination, everything is more beautiful and perfect.
Se regarder en chiens de faïence – “To look at each other like earthenware dogs”
Originating from the distinctly cold, distant look of dogs’ eyes in old faïence pottery, this idiom means that two people will icily glare at one another in distrust and hatred.
Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe – “Arrive like a hair in the soup”
When you’re having a conversation and a friend makes a remark that has nothing to do with anything, and doesn’t contribute to the conversation, this French idiom sums it up perfectly. A strand of hair in soup is neither expected nor wanted.
Se prendre un râteau – “To hit a rake”
Rejection is always tough, and the French have an apt description for how it feels. You’ll feel like you walked onto a rake and it smacked you in the face.
ŉ Koei kan moontlik ŉ haas vang – “A cow can possibly catch a rabbit”
Much like the idioms “When Hell freezes over” and “When pigs fly,” this idiom suggests that something is impossible, and will never happen.
Jakkals trou met wolf se vrou – “Jackal marries wolf’s wife”
Based on legends of a wily jackal and trusting wolf, this phrase is used when a sunshower occurs. Sunshowers are a popular source for idioms in many countries, in part because of the contrasting visuals of the sun and rainfall.
ń Aap in die mou hê – “To have a monkey in your sleeve”
Ever heard of “having something up your sleeve”? Afrikaans answers this question. It’s a monkey. This idiom means someone has a mischievous plan in the works.
Finns det hjärterum så finns det stjärterum – “If there is room in the heart, there is room for the butt”
This idiom is sweet, despite its bluntness. It means that if people care about someone, they’ll make room for them to sit.
Att glida in på en räkmacka – “To slide in on a shrimp sandwich”
If you work hard at your job, but the boss promotes his incompetent son over you, you could use this idiom to suggest that the son didn’t have to work hard to get where he is in life.
Jag anar ugglor i mossen – “I suspect owls in the bog”
When something doesn’t seem quite right, and you’re suspicious. This phrase indicates that you think the situation is sketchy.
Foreign Idioms and Language Learning
Every language has hundreds of unique, culturally specific idioms. Each provides an acute insight into a given language and its speakers. However, because of that richness and specificity, they can also be a difficult challenge for language learners.
But with time and practice, they can be incorporated into your vocabulary and conversations. When you learn how to properly use foreign idioms, you also learn more about a place’s history, values and sometimes its sense of humor.