Literal translations can sometimes provide insight into how different cultures perceive certain concepts or objects. We can also learn about the origins of different words. In English, we call someone we haven’t met a “stranger” even if they aren’t “strange” per se (it comes from the Old French word “estrangier” meaning “foreigner, alien”). We eat sandwiches, which have nothing to do with sand (the name comes from the 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th century English nobleman).
Our team members weighed in with words and phrases from different languages that may sound a bit odd when translated literally:
A popular dessert all over the Arab world is called أم علي (Umm Ali) — literally, “Ali’s mom.”
In Chinese, the term “土豆” literally means “soil bean.” This word means “peanut” in Taiwan, but “potato” in China.
The word for the longan fruit means “dragon eye” in Chinese (龍眼/龙眼).
Here are some Japanese words:
- Nekojita（猫舌）means “cat tongue” and is used to describe someone sensitive to hot drinks.
- Yoko meshi（横飯) means “horizontal rice” and refers to Western food.
- Dasoku（蛇足) means “snake legs” and refers to something unnecessary (and probably detrimental!)
- Nommunication (ノミュニケーション) is a combination of Japanese (Nomu = “to drink”) and English (“communication”). It literally means “communication while drinking.”
In Korean, (장롱면허) literally means “closet/armoire license.” This phrase is used to describe someone licensed to drive a car but likely unfit to do any real-world driving (as the license has never left the person’s closet).
Here are a few Spanish phrases:
- “No tener pelos en la lengua”—literally, “not having any hairs on your tongue.” This is equivalent to the English expression of “not mincing words.”
- “Media naranja”—literally, “half an orange.” This is similar to the saying “your other half” in English to mean one’s partner/love.
- “Al pie de la letra”—”at the foot of the letter.” This refers to the idea of following instructions closely.
- “Poner el cuerno”—”to set the horn.” This means to cheat on somebody in a romantic relationship.
In Tagalog, “Susmaryosep”—literally, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” is used as an interjection. Also, the phrase “Sana all” (literally, “I wish all”) is a phrase meaning “I wish for everyone (to have) that.” Depending on context, it’s an expression used to show jealousy (like “isn’t that nice?” in English) in a humorous way.
In Turkish, the word for a black beetle or cockroach is “karafatma”—literally, “black Fatima” (Fatima is a woman’s name). The word for ostrich is “devekuşu,” which literally means “camel bird.”
As you can see, literal translations can provide a wealth of insight (and entertainment!). However, it’s important to understand the importance of cultural nuances in localization and the limits of machine translation. As we’ve discussed in previous articles, relying on machine translation can get you into trouble! Our global network of language and culture experts and innovative technology solutions are here to ensure that your message resonates with your audiences around the world. Contact us – we’d love to discuss your project goals!
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