MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

My Favorite Untranslatable Sayings October 24, 2012

Just as I’m fascinated with untranslatable words, I love coming across sayings, proverbs or idioms that makes sense in one language, but baffles the mind when translated into another. I think I see a second MotherTongues App coming… Here are a few of my favorites.

l’espirit de l’escalier (French). Literally: “the spirit of the staircase”. When one ponders what one should have said in a previous conversation (as you are going up the stairs, I presume).

Dil baagh baagh ho-gaya (Urdu and Punjabi). Literally: “My heart became a garden”. Used to express overwhelming joy.

Siku ya kufa nyani miti yote huteleza (Swahili). Literally: “The day a monkey is destined to die, all trees get slippery.” There is no escaping one’s fate.

Gadrii Nombor Shulen Jongu (Tibetan). Literally: “To give a green answer to a blue question”. Giving an answer that is unrelated to the question.

Egyszer volt budán kutyavásár (Hungarian). Literally: “There was a dog-market in Buda only once”. A favorable opportunity that only happens once. It is something to be grasped with two hands, otherwise you will find yourself regretting it later on.

And a last one:

Ukuph’ ukuziphakela (Zulu: South Africa). Literally: “Giving is to serve a portion for oneself.” Kindness is reciprocated. When one gives to another it is like serving a portion for oneself because when in need, it is most likely that the person one has helped, will return the kindness.

Please tell me your favorite sayings, and remember to add the translation too!

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4 Responses to “My Favorite Untranslatable Sayings”

  1. Ah where did you find all these? They are fantastic!

    • Michelle Says:

      I found it as I searched for new words for MotherTongues clothing or the MotherTongues World Words app. Some online, some in books. Glad you enjoyed reading it!

  2. Lachlan Mackenzie Says:

    Great sayings. The French should be ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’ and it means ‘the wit of the staircase’. You think of your missed opportunity to say something devastatingly witty on the way down, after leaving someone’s apartment, too late. Remember that most French city-dwellers live in apartments.

  3. […] My Favorite Untranslatable Sayings (mothertonguesblog.com) […]


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