Just as different countries often possess quirky workplace habits – a subject we explored in our international office etiquette post – many countries use phrases that are completely unique to their language and culture.
We delved deeper into the subject of workplace confusion to uncover the idioms that can get lost in translation, causing misunderstandings between international colleagues and business partners.
Most countries have common phrases and sayings with meanings universally understood by natives, but not all idioms are translatable, especially not literally. This is something the members of our international team experience each day when they hear idioms in English for the first time, or when they employ a beloved phrase from their own culture to a confused reaction.
Many international idioms don’t have an English equivalent, so the intended idea can’t be expressed properly. For this project, we asked our international colleagues to share their favourite idioms in their respective mother tongue with us – focussing on phrases that sound bizarre or surreal when translated literally into English.
We teamed up with the award-winning British illustrator Paul Blow to create illustrations for eleven phrases in eleven different languages, provided by our international Viking team. Here is the result!
Original idiom (Swedish): Glida in på en räckmacka
Literal translation: To slide in on a prawn sandwich
Meaning: To have an easy life
Example: To work on an easy project in contrast to other colleagues who do lots of overtime.
Original idiom (German): Jemandem einen Bären aufbinden
Literal translation: To tie a bear to someone
Meaning: To confuse someone
Example: When a colleague tells incredible stories that are difficult to follow.
Original idiom (Japanese): ほっぺたが落ちる
Literal translation: My cheeks are falling off!
Meaning: I think this food is delicious!
Example: Praise for a particularly tasty lunch.
Original idiom (English): As cool as a cucumber
Literal translation: As cold as a cucumber
Meaning: To be calm or relaxed
Example: To describe that someone stayed calm during a difficult job interview.
Original idiom (Dutch): hair op per tanden hebbe
Literal translation: To have hair on your teeth
Meaning: To be self-assertive
Example: An individual who has stronger arguments during a discussion with a colleague and reached the desired end goal.
Original idiom (Italian): Non tutte le ciambelle escono col buco
Literal translation: Not all donuts come with a hole
Meaning: Things do not always go as well as you would like
Example: If a project takes an unexpected, negative turn.
Original idiom (Polish): Musztarda po obiedzie
Literal translation: Mustard after lunch
Meaning: It’s too late to do something because it has already happened
Example: Not dwelling on the things you could have done differently after a failed campaign.
Original idiom (Arabic): أصوم وأفطر على بصلة
Literal translation: Break a fast with an onion
Meaning: To get less than what you were expecting
Example: To receive no or poor feedback from the customer at the end of a very successful and labour intensive campaign.
Original idiom (Icelandic): He Það pylsuendanum rúsínan í
Literal translation: The raisin at the end of the hotdog
Meaning: An unexpected surprise at the end of something
Example: When you are unexpectedly promoted at the end of a salary review meeting.
Original idiom (Norwegian): Å svelge noen kameler
Literal translation: To swallow some camels
Meaning: To give in
Example: To leave your point of view during an argument and admit the opponent is right.
Original idiom (French): Quand les poules auront des les dentes
Literal translation: When chickens would have teeth!
Meaning: When something is never going to happen
Example: To voice disbelief that a self-opinionated colleague will ever admit that they are wrong.
These visualisations give a nice insight into the workings of other languages and cultures. And they show once again how essential it is to employ native speakers with good language skills and cultural knowledge and not to trust machine translation programs such as Google Translate blindly.