International Sayings Lost In Translation

Lost In Translation

Communicating is hard enough when you speak the same language, but throw a non-native speaker into the mix and popular sayings and idioms can become impossible language barriers. Since different languages interpret common sayings in different ways, (and often have their own idioms entirely!) we’ve put together a list of our favorites from around the world. 

Holland: no sweat!

In American English, if you’re a bundle of nerves you might say “I’m sweating bullets!” But in Dutch, they would say “Ik zweet wortelen.” That means: “I’m sweating carrots!” 

This phrase actually might make more sense than its English counterpart. There is such a thing as “sweating” vegetables – it’s the gentle cooking of veggies in oil or fat, which brings out their aromatics.

Annoying In Armenia

If someone is bugging you, you’re going to turn to them and say “knock it off,” or, “stop bugging me.” However,  if you’re pestering someone in the fine country of Armenia, they might say to you, “Stop ironing my head!” Since that sounds rather painful, let’s not bug anyone in Armenia, alright?

Angry In China

In China, they have a fantastic saying for someone who is really bent out of shape: “emitting smoke from seven orifices.” Or locally, 七窍生烟 (qīqiàoshēngyān). And just to be clear, we’re talking about a pair of eyes, ears, nostrils, and your mouth.

Moo To You, Too

No one cares much for a bragger. In English, we might refer to them as a “windbag” or a “blowhard.” In China, if you’re boasting about yourself or making much ado about nothing, they’d say 吹牛 (chuīniú) : you’re “inflating a cow.”

Bless You, Fido

Dogs are known as “man’s best friend,” with good reason. They’re friendly and loyal to a fault. But they aren’t generally seen in churches, unless they’re service dogs. With that said, “a dog in church” has a special meaning in Italy. Their phrase is “un cane in chiesa,” and is used to refer to an unwanted guest. Hopefully, that guest doesn’t have fleas.

Mmmm, Bacon?

What does bacon, the good life, and Germany have to do with one another? Well, if you’re living the lifestyle of the rich and famous, a German might say “Leben wie die Made im Speck,” which means “to live like a maggot in bacon.” Ewwww. We’ll pass on that bacon cheeseburger now.

Nobody’s Perfect

You may be an expert in your field, or perhaps you’re highly qualified to speak on a particular subject. But, since we’re all human, we make mistakes. In Japan, they take particular note of this. They say 猿も木から落ちる (Saru mo ki kara ochiru) or “even monkeys fall from the trees,” meaning, “even the experts get it wrong.” Too true.

Liar Liar Pants On Fire

Most of us would take issue with associating noodles with anything other than wonderful things. But, if you’re a liar in Russia, they say “Вешать лапшу на уши (veshat’ lapshu na ushi),” or “you’re hanging noodles on your ears.” Why would you ever do that?!


When people get nervous, they might wring their hands, or drum their fingers on the table. Some of us like to pace back and forth to ease the tension. The Dutch phrase for this is “IJsberen,” or “polar-bearing.” This may come from observing polar bears in captivity pacing back and forth within their enclosures. 

Great Minds Think Alike

Say you’re in a business meeting with several other colleagues, and everyone has an opinion. Once you finally come to a conclusion, you might say “are we all on the same page?” In China (Mandarin/Cantonese), they might say instead: “一鼻孔出气 (yī bíkǒng chūqì / yāt beihhúng chēuthei, or “are we breathing through the same nostril?” Now that’s some collaboration!

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