Expressing the Problems around Expressions

LTC - Expressing the Problems around Expressions (2019)

Most people would probably agree that expressions in any language are a real challenge to learn. However, our daily conversation is often littered with idioms, proverbs, figurative speech and collocations that are all part of our cultural heritage. So, surprising though it may seem, this is often what makes spoken language more difficult to learn than the structures and styles used for formal speech and writing. And this goes for all languages.

Taking English as an example, it would be fair to say that up to a certain level, it’s not difficult to learn. After all, millions of people the world over manage to communicate in English even if they’ve never had any formal teaching. However, to speak it with any kind of flexibility and proficiency means that a mastery of the idiomatic forms is essential, as well as knowledge of the most common metaphors and similes. And here it becomes infinitely more difficult, not to mention much more humorous when things go wrong.

The exceptions that prove the rule
In the Netherlands, there are equal numbers of expressions, but that’s the point. They are Dutch expressions and they don’t translate easily into English, which is what it’s very tempting to try and do. Occasionally, and I mean occasionally, there is an expression that’s the same, but this is the exception rather than the rule. For instance, in English we might say “better late than never,” when apologising for sending a tardy gift or card. Well surprise surprise, so do Dutch people: “beter laat dan nooit” is how it’s said, but don’t be fooled; this is very unusual.

Mnemonics or not
One of the first expressions many expats hear when trying to learn Dutch is that a mnemonic to help them remember something is called ‘een ezelsbruggetje.’ Literally, this means a ‘donkey bridge’, so when a kindly Dutch person translates the expression, it tends to raise a few eyebrows. I mean if someone says they’ve got a useful donkey’s bridge for you, it doesn’t automatically conjure up a language aid, does it? Instead, the English brain is probably seeing some kind of image from Winnie the Pooh. The point is that in English it has no meaning or association with mnemonics at all. What’s more, it’s highly likely that most Dutch people don’t know where the expression derives from either; it’s just part of Dutch language history.

To sin or not to sin
However, the real issue is the mistranslation of expressions that can give rise to more than eyebrow lifting; for instance, when a Dutch person says “I always get my sin,” it can confuse the uninitiated English listener no end. What is even more surprising is that such Dutch person might well say this with some pride, which will puzzle any English friends even more and lead to all sorts of ribald jokes, or at the very least conjecture and innuendo.

This once happened to one of the Language & Training Centre teachers when during a class, one of her students said smugly that she always got her sin when it came to dating boys. Fortunately, the teacher had the restraint to ask her student exactly what she meant before either laughing out loud, or worse, reprimanding the girl. You can imagine the chuckles that followed when she discovered that ik krijg altijd mijn zin in Dutch means ‘I always get my way’, and not ‘my sin’ (although the mistake is understandable given the similarity between zin and ‘sin’). As it transpired, in English (or Dinglish) the young student had just been saying what a determined lass she was.

Humorous pitfalls: the stuff of book
Interestingly, the frequency with which this particular idiom is abused has resulted in it being the title of two books containing hundreds of such mistranslations. The author, Maarten H Rijkens, was a director of Heineken and had plenty of opportunity to collect Dinglish expressions when attending meetings and presentations. In his books, I Always Get My Sin (volumes 1 and 2), Rijkens provides some hilarious examples of instances involving Dutch idioms that have led to cringe-worthy English equivalents. Talk about ‘lost in translation’, many of these have been drowned in the tears of embarrassed laughter.

He describes his absolute favourite as the phrase issued from the lips of a newly appointed MP, who said in a speech at a glittering dinner for international guests something along the lines of: “I am the minister of the inside and I am having my first period.” The poor woman never understood why all the guests promptly choked on their drinks. If, on the other hand, she’d known that binnen in Dutch can be translated as ‘interior’ as well as ‘inside’, and that the English word for periode is actually ‘term’, then she might have saved herself and her audience quite some embarrassment, not to mention dry cleaning bills.

Idiotic idioms
Nevertheless, amusing though these idiomatic faux pas might be, they serve to underscore how difficult it can be to learn the correct forms for fixed expressions in another language. Indeed, they often don’t appear to follow normal grammatical constructs at all. One example is the English linking expression ‘be that as it may,’ which means ‘nevertheless’ or ‘despite that.’ When analysed linguistically, it’s just a combination of vague subjunctive and modal verbs held together with pronouns, which might be difficult for inexpert speakers to translate unless they know that in Dutch, it is the equally vague ‘hoe dan ook.’

The outcome of all these verbal conundrums has to be that for real mastery of a language, we need to learn much more than its grammar and vocabulary; what we need even more is some immersion in the expressions, traditional metaphors and maybe even a bit of history and story-telling too. If we accept that any language is a reflection of the people’s culture, there’s a lot more to it than simple translation.


  • Valerie Poore
    Valerie Poore was born and raised in England but later moved to South Africa where she gained experience in Marketing and Communications, both as a practitioner and as a trainer. She returned to Europe in 2001 and has been working for the Language and Training Centre (EUR) as a freelance teacher and trainer since 2002. During this time, she gained her Master’s in TESOL, specializing in English for academic purposes. Valerie currently teaches writing skills to both business and academic students. In addition, she writes articles for magazines, as well as publishing her own books.

    Valerie Poore - LTC - 2019

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