Funny Animal Idioms

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Idioms can pose particular challenges for translators. Some expressions are more straightforward to translate, as they have an equivalent in the target language. The French saying quand on parle du loup (on en voit la queue), for example, literally means ‘when you speak of the wolf (and you see its tail)’, which could be translated into English as speak of the devil (and he will appear).

We especially like the Arabic and Chinese versions of the English saying pot calling the kettle black, which becomes the camel doesn’t see the crookedness of its own neck in Arabic and the turtle makes fun of the other turtle’s short tail in Chinese!

But when the target language doesn’t have an idiom with the same meaning, things get trickier and a translator may have to paraphrase the expression without using idiomatic language – they could then compensate for this by introducing another idiom into the translation somewhere else.

Some of these idioms will look like a fish out of water in English, but we think they’re hilarious!

Language

Animal Idiom

Literal Translation

Meaning

German

Er hat den Bock zum Gärtner gemacht

He’s made the goat the gardener

To let someone do something/ to give someone a job that he/she is absolutely unsuitable for

French

Quand les poules auront des dents

When chickens have teeth

Pigs might fly!

Spanish

Un pez gordo

A fat fish

Big shot

French

Passer du coq à l’âne

Jump from the rooster to the donkey

Jump from one topic to another

Italian

Correre dietro alle farfalle

To run behind the butterflies

Waste time, chase after something unachievable

Polish

Bazgrze jak kura pazurem

Scribbles like a chicken with a claw

Someone has terrible handwriting!

German

Wie die Kuh vorm neuen Tor dastehen

Like a cow standing before a new gate

Someone is very confused!

French

Se faire poser un lapin

To be given a rabbit

To be stood up

Spanish

Pensar en las musarañas

To think about the field mice

To day dream

Polish

Dostał małpiego rozumu

To have monkey brains

Suddenly behave strangely, foolishly or aggressively

Italian

Far vedere I sorci Verdi

To make someone see green rats

To warn someone they’re about to be defeated!

German

Wo sich Hase und Fuchs gute Nacht sagen

Where the hare and the fox say goodnight

In the middle of nowhere!

French

Donner de la confiture aux cochons

To give jam to the pigs

To give someone something refined that they won’t appreciate

Spanish

Buscarle tres pies al gato

To look for three feet of the cat

To be looking for trouble!

Polish

Ma węża w kieszeni

Have a snake in your pocket

To be tight-fisted

German

Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

I believe my pig is whistling!

Blow me down! I don’t believe it!

These idioms also have equivalent expressions in English – can you guess what they might be?

French: vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué

Literal translation: to sell the bear’s skin before it’s been killed

Spanish: crí­a cuervos y te sacaran los ojos

Literal translation: breed cows and they will poke out your eyes

Let us know what you think!

I am native Austrian and studied Linguistics and Literature at the University of Innsbruck and in Manchester, so language and translation has always been a passion of mine. Before joining Tongue Tied, I have worked as a Translation Assistant and in Customer Services and Purchasing.
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2 Comments

  1. Jochen Kruse

    Wie der Ochs vor’m Berg (stehen) = like an ox before a mountain/like a dying duck before a thunderstorm/dumfounded
    Schneckentempo = at a snail’s pace/really slow
    Aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen = to make a mountain out of a molehill/to exaggerate
    Die Mücke/Fliege machen = to go away
    Sich zum Affen machen = to turn oneself into an ape/to make a fool of oneself
    Als Tiger srpingen und als Katze landen = Jump like a tiger and land like a cat/to overpromise
    Ein schweinischer Witz = a piigish joke/ a really distasteful joke

    • Isabella Fink

      Thank you Jochen, und dankeschön- these are great ones! 🙂

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