Mission Impossible II

Complex concepts often lead to questions such as why does one particular culture possess a word that another does not? Language always seeks to be as efficient as possible. If a concept is used enough in a particular culture, it begins to stick. Here are some more odd words that could prove to be difficult to translate:

Dai Lu maozi (Chinese): his wife is sleeping with someone else (literally, he wears the green hat)

Gwarlingo (Welsh): the rushing sound a grandfather clock makes before striking the hour

Setja upp gestaspjot (Icelandic): a phrase denoting the action taken by a cat when cleaning itself, with its body curled tightly in a circle with one back leg sticking up directly in the air and when a cat was seen doing this it was supposed to indicate that visitors would be turning up (literally, put up a guest-spear)

Pisan zapra (Malay): the time needed to eat a banana

Geisterfahrer (Austrian German): one travelling the wrong way up an autobahn (literally, ghost driver)

Mouton enragé (French): someone calm who loses their temper (literally, an enraged sheep)

Mamihlapinatapai (from Tierra del Fuego): two people looking at each other each hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing to do

Iets door de vingers kijken (Flemish): allow something illegal or incorrect to happen by conscious inaction (literally, to look at something through the fingers)

Yupienalle (Swedish): a mobile phone (literally, yuppie teddy)

Schürzenjaeger (German): someone who chases after women (literally, a hunter of aprons)

Amoureux d’une chevre coiffée (French): a man who is attracted to every woman he sees (literally, a love of a goat whose fur is combed)

Translators beware…

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14 Responses to “Mission Impossible II”

  1. J. K. Gayle Says:

    Great question, and more wonderful examples!

    Here are more:

    Pie in the Sky by and by (West Texas English): heaven (literally, sweet dessert in the atmosphere eventually)

    (Just heard that one at a Cowboy Church in San Angelo, Texas USA this past Sunday, when someone was explaining to me the hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which I’m wondering how to translate into Vietnamese.)

    trúng gió (Vietnamese): to catch a cold (literally, to be hit by the wind)

    masuk angin (Vietnamese): to catch a cold (literally, a draft or wind has entered)

  2. J. K. Gayle Says:

    ooops:
    masuk angin (Indonesian): to catch a cold (literally, a draft or wind has entered)

  3. transubstantiation Says:

    Wonderful. Brilliant. Many thanks!

  4. Cudzoziemiec Says:

    Mamihlapinatapai (from Tierra del Fuego): two people looking at each other each hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing to do

    A lovely idea which should have a word or phrase the world over.

    Iets door de vingers kijken (Flemish): allow something illegal or incorrect to happen by conscious inaction (literally, to look at something through the fingers)

    The very same phrase is used in Polish (and therefore I expect in other European languages – maybe a Latin root?). Patrzec przec palce.

  5. transubstantiation Says:

    Yes, it is odd (or is it?) that the word “Mamihlapinatapai” is not use in other languages.

    Interesting, that Polish also ‘looks through fingers’…

  6. tanaudel Says:

    The German is very similar to the English “skirt-chaser” – not surprising given the relationship of the languages, and I wonder how far back that phrase goes.

  7. transubstantiation Says:

    Very far, I’m sure. 🙂

  8. Raf Uzar Says:

    Here’s another one:
    “mumagamagama” a person who habitually loses things.

  9. Thomas Says:

    Interesting examples.
    However, what gave you the idea that “Geisterfahrer” is Austrian? I’d say it’s universally used in German.

  10. transubstantiation Says:

    Apparently, “Geisterfahrer” originated in Austria.

  11. anuar manshor Says:

    Pisan zapra (Malay): ???
    The time needed to eat a banana: Masa untuk memakan pisang.
    Banana: Pisang.

  12. transubstantiation Says:

    Wonderful! Many thanks for this.

  13. Victor Dewsbery Says:

    But none of these get anywhere near the word “normal”.

    As in “Just be normal”.

    Depending on the speaker this can mean a hundred and one different things – even within the same family – and nobody understands what the other person actually means.

    Who needs a foreign language when they’ve got their husband/wife/parents/kids to talk to?


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