Foreign idioms: a fun look at the sayings of the world

A fun new book out this summer takes a sideways look at the idioms and sayings of the world.

“I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ear and Other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World” takes its title from a Russian saying which is broadly similar in meaning to the English phrase “I’m not pulling your leg”. Often, we are so used to these absurdities in our own languages that they pass us by in everyday speech – although of course they often present a challenge to the foreign language translator!

The book is best viewed as a something to dip into, considering idioms from the Russian “To look like September” (to look miserable) through to the French “to fart in silk” (be very happy).

The chapters are arranged by subject matter (love, health, work, and so on) with a short introduction to each, and translations from a range of languages including French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Arabic. Several of the idioms are illustrated in cartoon form, adding to the entertainment value.

Sadly the book doesn’t really delve into the background of the idioms. An academic study would have been out of place, but you can’t help but wonder if a more thorough exploration of a phrase and its etymology would have added to the fun. Also, as foreign language typesetters and translators, we would have liked to see more emphasis on the original saying rather than just the literal translation.

That said, it’s all good fun. Even better, it’s inspired the Guardian newspaper to produce a fun quiz of foreign language idioms. Give it a go and, as they point out, you can find out if you’re “a walking donkey killer or simply carrying owls to Athens”

No substitute for professional translation!

Thanks to one of our readers for pointing out this news story about York council coming under fire for relying on online machine translation.

There’s a couple of funny examples but there is also an underlying serious point. If you want to communicate details and nuances of your services in a foreign language, the often rough and ready translation provided free online might not be good enough or, even worse, can make you a laughing stock.

There really is no substitute for professional translation services provided by a human being!

More into Chinese language

There is mixed news in a new report on languages in secondary schools from the National Centre for Languages (CiLT). They looked at a sample of schools across the UK in a survey they have carried out each year since 2002.

First the good news. State schools in the UK are starting to offer a much broader range of foreign languages than the traditional French or German. Since 2005 the number of schools offering Mandarin as an option has increased from 2% to 14%, while Italian has increased from 7% to 18%. The availability of Urdu, Russian and Arabic has also increased.

With China’s growing influence in the world, making Mandarin available as a foreign language option can only be a good thing. And learning it from an early age is no bad thing either, as some people find it difficult to adapt to the Mandarin pronunciation later in life.

Many also find it difficult to get to grips with the writing system which uses individual characters for particular words or concepts. The examples featured in the Chinese GCSE specification (PDF) I looked at were written in Simplified Chinese, as one would expect for people learning Mandarin with an eye to interacting with mainland China (or more correctly the People’s Republic of China).

This at least reduces the number of characters that need to be learned, although there are still thousands!

And it is interesting to note that many Traditional Chinese characters seem to be gaining currency even in the PRC as the influence of Hong Kong is felt.

There is a down side exposed in the CiLT report though. Although the decline in foreign languages in our schools has bottomed out, this summer saw just 44% of Key Stage 4 (ie 16 year old) pupils sit a language GCSE. Compare this to France where the teaching of English is compulsory up to age 17.

Although many schools are taking up alternative qualifications to GCSE to tempt pupils to learn languages, we still lag some way behind many other EU countries.

My daughter is currently going through the process of chososing her GCSE subject and to try to ensure she takes at least one foreign language I will be directing her here – 700 reasons why it is good to learn another language.