‘Don’t blame the mirror for your ugly face’: why foreign idioms rule | Life and style

There’s a group of professionals that I have a particular respect for: translators. Those who work to bring us the speeches and press-conference utterances of foreign leaders (hopefully avoiding geopolitical disasters by not making mistakes – though there have been some close calls); and literary translators responsible for gifting me Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, the brilliant Polish Nobel prize-winner by Olga Tokarczuk (which itself includes a subplot about translating William Blake), or the poetry of Anna Akhmatova.

Some of the most crucial translations, though, are those of proverbs. Idioms, adages, aphorisms from languages all over the world. These must be handled with care, like family heirlooms passed from generation to generation. Oral stories and national myths, too.

I collect these phrases as some collect stamps. Italy, as you might expect, has many food-based idioms. To have one’s “eyes lined with ham” is to be blind to something obvious. In France, “to pedal in the sauerkraut” means to go nowhere fast, or have difficulty finishing something. I loved this originally because I assumed it referred to the texture of sauerkraut. But I later learned that it apparently comes from early Tour de France races, when wagons picking up stragglers often featured ads for sauerkraut.

I also enjoy seeing how human brains, across place, time and culture, will make the same observations. And comparing the different ways in which we come to express those same thoughts. For example, in English: “A bad workman always blames his tools.” In Russian? The much more brutal: “Don’t blame a mirror for your ugly face.” Thanks, mate. In response to a sneeze, the English is: “God bless you.” Mongolian goes the extra mile, with: “God bless you and may your moustache grow like brushwood” – which would please hipsters.

Other idioms are so bizarre that they appeal for their sheer imaginative energy. Prevaricating in Latvian is “to blow ducklings”. Which makes no sense, and seems unfair on ducks somehow. In Croatian, what goes around comes around becomes: “The cat comes to the tiny door.” Again; what? Then again, my cat would be angry if his cat flap shrunk. So, maybe.

Given our global political landscape, the Swedish description of someone privileged, who hasn’t had to work to get to a prominent position, that they have “slid on a shrimp sandwich”, seems widely apt. But, with current events in mind, we shall end on a positive note. “It’s better,” the Chinese proverb goes, “to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

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