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As I promised in my previous post, I’m presenting you with a list of examples that is intended to prove how difficult, mostly impossible it is to translate among languages texts which contain idiomatic language. But I’d like to begin on the level of phrases, which is the first level that may present such problems, like with the English phrasal verbs.

Dutch to English

Two of my favourite Dutch verbs are something I find very amusing word-for-word:

‘slagen voor het examen’ and ‘zakken voor het examen’

The first means to pass an exam, the second means to fail an exam. The problem comes with ‘voor’, which means that I can pass or fail before the exam.  Which will happen to me if I don’t go? But I shouldn’t go because I’m going to pass or fail before it anyway – the only question is, which?

One thing the Dutch can’t translate to English is “Eet smakelijk!” or “Smakelijk eten!” simply because the English don’t say much before eating. Some may occasionally wish “bon appétit!” with the French, which is equivalent to the very rarely heard Dutch “Goeie eetlust!” but then again, how to translate the jovial “Tuck in”? The translation of the Dutch phrase to English would be to wish “Eat tasty!”, which sounds completely ungrammatical, and may also question the quality of what we have just received in front of us. Hungarians at least regularly wish “jó étvágyat!” Good men! But to wish for what the reason is for sitting down to eat is also not very logical. Still, there it is.

The Dutch word ‘stom’ has, strangely, two meanings, one being ‘mute’, or ‘dumb’, but the other one seems to associate muteness with stupidity, meaning ‘stupid’. People in the Middle Ages may have considered this correct, thus the word meaning ‘fall silent’ became ‘verstommen’ in Dutch. Not very nice, as if stopping to talk automatically meant a mental disorder. In interesting comparison, the Hungarian word for ‘falling silent’, ‘elhallgat’ associates stopping to speak with listening. It’s a nicer way of looking at it I presume when we suppose that the silent one isn’t speaking because he is listening, that is, paying attention to us. Perhaps Chinese concert audiences fail to fall silent during a classical concert also because they’re afraid of being accused of becoming stupid. Chinese?

The Dutch ‘heeft verkering met dit meisje’, but if they informed their English friend translating this as ‘I have courtship with this girl’, they would get strange eyes. The English ‘go out with a girl’, or ‘pay courtship to a girl’ if they want to be very high-class, which they don’t really. Actually, this Dutch phrase is also going out of use and a teenager would speak about his ‘vriendin’, just like the English about their girlfriends, but then there’s no expression for ‘going out together’ in Dutch.

Other examples of phrases that are directly not translatable are:

‘iemand een optater verkopen’ = to sell a punch to someone (sell?)

‘een knal verkopen’ = to sell a clap on the head (?) = kupán vág valakit (Hongaars: ’kupa’ means a cup)

‘vriendschap sluiten met iemand’ = make friends with sb; what do we want to close in translation? (the Hungarians ‘tie’ a friendship, but the same word – ‘köt’ – is also used for ‘embroider’)

‘zo te zien’ = so to see? no! = evidently, apparently

‘het zwaar te pakken hebben’ = heavily have it to take? = to love s/b badly, or to have big problems

‘het schip ingaan’ = enter a ship? no! = something goes wrong, to have big difficulties

‘iets onder de knie hebben’ = have something under the knee? no! = this idiomatic phrase means ‘to have mastered something’ – the problem with the Hungarian ‘elsajátít’ is that is means ‘making sg his own’, but it also has a very close connotation to sealing

‘een appeltje te schillen hebben met iemand’ = instead of an apple to peel? = to have a bone to pick with s/o – the Hungarian ‘elszámolnivalója van valakivel’ makes it akin to paying the bill but it doesn’t expressly say who has to pay, so it’s also difficult to put in English

‘weten hoe de vork in the steel zit’ = to know how the fork sits in the stalk (of a flower)? handle (of a hammer)?= to know the ins and outs of the matter = ‘ismeri a dörgést’ in Hungarian, but that sounds like ’he knows the sound of lightning’.

On idiomatic levels we can almost always see the problem, usually in all ways.

English to Dutch

To begin this section, phrasal verbs offer themselves the best. We’re not always so fortunate with them, like in the case of ‘to be cut out for’, which is ‘geknipt zijn voor’ in Dutch and is directly translatable. Not so in other languages. Surprisingly, the Chinese ‘当… 能力’ (dāng … nénglì) is simple and only suggests the power to work as someone, or to bear some responsibility for something, so you don’t have to be cut in any shape. The Hungarian ’erre van teremtve’, on the other hand, has a very strong connotation with being created for something by god. But it wouldn’t really be appropriate to translate it back as ’to be created to do s/g.’

We could go on with phrasal verbs infinitely to prove the point. But I deem it unnecessary, as most people learning English find this area very difficult. I’d like to go on with other kinds of differences instead.

When friends are already inside their homes, the English make you ‘feel at home’ or ‘make yourself at home.’ The Dutch invite us with ‘Com even binnen,’ and rarely wish us “Moge het je bekomen”, so it may surprise many Dutch how often they may encounter it in English.

When two people regularly quarrel, the Dutch may say ‘elkaar altijd in de haar ziten/haren zitten’. Try translating it to be ‘to sit each other always in the hair’ or something, and you’ll make people’s eyebrows rise really high. Why would such people ‘sit’, we may ask. The Hungarian ‘marakodnak’ is suggestive of biting each other or burning material in a caustic manner, for which English has no verb.

How does a ‘queer fish’, or a ‘strange customer’ become a French bean? But here it is = ‘een rare snijboon’ (and ‘snij’ is also not French!)

One thing the poor Dutch can’t translate, probably don’t even know exist, is how to ‘go Dutch’ ??? They may sometimes share the bill, but other than ‘verdelen’=’share’, there’s no idiom to this effect. But the phrase and the practice is very popular among Australians and Americans teaching in South China, perhaps an excuse to again exploit the poor Chinese.

It mostly happens with proverbs and proverb-like phrases that translation may become completely funny. Because of the different symbolism and different metaphorical world of each culture, word-for-word translation would often sound stupid. The English ‘don’t count your chickens before they are hatched’, while Hungarians say ‘előre iszik a medve bőrére’, which is not a warning, but a fact, but the Dutch may find it a lot more familiar, except that instead of drinking for its hide, they wouldn’t like to sell the hide of the bear before it is shot in ‘niet de huid verkopen voor de beer geschoten is.’ The reason for the use of the bear in Dutch is very surprising, given that bears may have been last seen in their area some two thousand years ago, unlike in Hungary, but if the Dutch wanted to ‘shoot the chickens’ or ‘hatch the bear’ instead in translation, English people would only scratch their heads bloody in wonderment.

Of course, if the metaphorical viewpoints of different languages are similar, translation becomes a lot easier on the phrasal level. This happens, for example, with relationships viewed as journeys. As a result, two former lovers may ‘go their separate ways,’ which is exactly what two Hungarians may do when ‘elválnak útjaik,’ but the Dutch say ‘ze gaan van elkaar,’ or ‘ze scheiden van elkaar,’ only the second of which is interesting, with reference to being cut away from each other.

Of course, with a lot of interest and also time, good teachers, good dictionaries and interested friends, all of us could make up much longer lists to prove how difficult it is to translate. Unfortunately, most dictionaries have shortcomings on the phrasal and idiomatic level, and smaller ones don’t even deal with such parts of the languages concerned. Besides, they contain the occasional errors, of which I have a gradually lengthening list. One such mistake, only for proof, is that for ‘zij hebben verkering‘ one relatively good dictionary gives ‘they are walking out.’ Out of a shop, may I ask? Are the authors of the dictionary aware that ‘walking out (on somebody)’ is the opposite of expressing love to the other one, or going together? Which, actually, is the meaning of the Dutch phrase …

It is also a matter of fact that highly qualified translators and interpreters of both languages in question are fully capable of doing this correctly. But to learners, these strange differences create a situation in which being asked to translate among languages they don’t possess appropriately may become insurmountable. More dangerously, it becomes a source of failure which impedes the learning process very strongly. Teachers in their right minds wouldn’t like to create failures, would they?

by P.S. and Z.J.S., with help from E. van Rossem

As a refreshing change from my own diction, let me encourage you to click on this link to an article by a teacher in Amsterdam explaining in his own manner why he thinks translation does not work with learning Dutch – with any language if you ask me.