If you spend long enough in a different language, the two begin to blend and mix in different ways in your head. Sure at some point you can switch effortlessly between them and not mix them up, except for the few words where there is no translation. I sometimes find odd connections that come up when trying to understand a new compound-word or phrase in German. Usually if I don’t know a phrase I think about the literal translation in English and often get a laugh. Here are some of my favorites.
- I only understand train station. / Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. – I don’t understand much. I saw this on a billboard for an English school in a train station.
- Egg-laying wool-milk-pig / Eierlegende Wollmilchsau – This is the fictional animal that can do everything. Closest english meaning I can think of is the goose that lays a golden egg or swiss-army knife.
- Don’t make an elephant from a gnat / Mach kein Elephant von einer Mücke. – The classic making mountains out of molehills with a German flair.
- Jump with naked ass into face. / Spring mit nakten Arsch ins Gesicht. – To get angry.
- Leave the church in the village. / Kirche im Dorf lassen. – Don’t do a lot of work for something that can be simple. This could be wrong, that is how I understand it though.
- Suggestion hammer / Vorschlaghammer – An actual Vorschlaghammer is what we would call a sledgehammer. The thing I like is that Vorschlag is also the word for suggestion. Though using such a hammer, things aren’t really suggestions anymore are they?
- Glow-pear / Gluhbirne – Lightbulb
I have a German friend who came for dinner every few weeks the past summer. We would cook, eat and watch Friends. She spent a year in England and watches a lot of American and British TV series, so her English knowledge is very good. Every so often though watching Friends we came across a cultural reference that went over her head. The words make sense, but the meaning behind it is unclear.
So on the flip side, I get to have the fun of explaining various phrases that are common in English to Germans. It surprises me a bit how much how we say things comes not from the words but from stock phrases that are part of the cultural understanding. Here are a few of the phrases that I have had to explain.
- Like water off a duck’s back.
- Enough rope to hang himself with.
My favorite German/English crossing phrase is one that Germans say in English, but no English native speaker would use. “No risk, no fun.” Now imagine that being said in a German accent with the slightly rolling ‘r’. Ok, it makes sense to me. I get why it is useful, but it isn’t like the words don’t exist in German to say it, they just happen to use English. The explanation that I came up with at one point is that it really isn’t a traditional German value. Risk and Fun are not things that go together. So perhaps in order to get around this culture barrier, the phrase needs to be in English.
Languages are fun to play with. As I spend more time in both languages, my humor evolves to need both to understand things.