Nothing reveals the character of a language and thereby—to a certain degree—of its speakers more than idioms and colloquialisms, standardized expressions that usually defy attempts of literal translation. Their use can be great fun but also (quite literally…) spell trouble when addressing a global audience.
“Argot” as the French call it—giving the phenomena a somewhat more sophisticated ring than the English “slang”—is usually so engrained in our daily communications that we do not notice anything strange, even if we are saying things that can appear quite absurd. We never really “nuke” our food nor does it actually rain cats and dogs. But have you ever wondered what it rains in other cultures? Well, you might be surprised to find out that in South Africa, it’s raining old women with knobkerries (clubs) and in Norway, female trolls. The Spanish offer husbands, and the Polish, frogs.
Each expression tells a story and invites to speculate on the origins of the idiom as well as the associated idiosyncrasies of the respective culture. I am probably not the only one who is reminded of the end scene of the movie “Magnolia” by the last example above. While some have interpreted the sequence as a biblical reference (Exodus 8:2) – which could in turn explain the Polish saying, given the strong catholic tradition in the country – recent studies go as far as establishing “raining animals” as a scientifically explainable occurrence, reported from many cultures throughout the ages.
The magic of words
Scientific proof or not, the power of the image can be tremendous, as Anderson’s 1999 film showed. There is probably no one who used the artistic device of bringing metaphors or sayings to life as extensively and masterfully as French author Boris Vian. He created an entire short story from the expression “Love is blind” (L’Amour est aveugle, 1949),
based on the proposition that by having to rely on our remaining four senses and eliminating the critical eye of others (and thus the sense of embarrassment), we are finally free to love. The story, full of clin d’oeuils, unravels our fixed perception of the world and its values by painting a surreal setting from a familiar phrase—it’s a mysterious fog that robs the people in the story of their eyesight, just long enough to discover their newly found freedom. The Oedipal ending in reverse plays on our morals just as much as on our literary heritage.
Playing the game
You don’t need to go that far to create an effect when playing with words for marketing or similar purposes, but it is not a bad idea to keep in mind how much of the game touches on cultural references and sensitivities. Even product names can fire back, as Clairol’s curling iron famously proved a few years ago when introduced into the German market: “Mist Stick” sounds a lot like “Miststück”, meaning “piece of manure”– a quite common curse word. An example going the other way around comes from Sweden: the international advertising team of a popular vacuum manufacturer was apparently not aware of the various connotations of the verb “to suck” when they released the slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” in the English-speaking markets. Granted, this happened back in the sixties when the expression “this sucks” was just emerging, but it goes to show how crucial it is to be tuned into the latest linguistic trends and developments. Language is a living thing, and the paradox about idiomatic expressions lies in their timelessness—some seem to have been around forever—paired with the ever-new creation of words and coining of phrases.
Keeping up with the latest
Market research groups around the world put a lot of work into keeping track of every trend and fad, but only by teaming up with professional linguists specializing in the field of creative adaptation in the respective target languages can marketeers ensure that their message will indeed come across. Even if bringing back classics—Shakespeare originated or at least popularized countless idioms, among them such staples as “dead as a doornail” or “to be in a pickle”—we cannot always be sure that they translate well or are as commonly known in translation as in their original version. (I couldn’t help but look up this last one: Apparently the bard adopted it from Dutch, where it indeed referred to the uncomfortable notion of being stuck in brine and vinegar, i.e. pickling juice). It gets more complicated when using modern speak, and the fact that English is penetrating colloquial lingo around the globe triggers quite some confusion while only seemingly standardizing popular culture and language. Ultimately, it is crucial for the translator or adaptation specialist to have a keen sense of what exactly an expression conveys in the source language in order to then find an equivalent (which may be entirely different linguistically) that can take its place in the target language.
When it comes to coining catchphrases or making them accessible to the general public, the “Shakespeares” of today are often members of the pop culture—we find them in music, movies (You talking to me?), TV—but copywriters themselves are actually a driving force as well. While we don’t know if any of the contemporary creations will have an impact as lasting as those of the famed playwright, unlike his, they have to stand the test of immediate internationalization. “Got Milk?” has been going for almost 20 years, nevertheless stumbling in its first attempts of going global: After being released in Spanish, it turned out that the tagline actually read “Are you lactating?” The web of course is another great source for new jargon with the added benefit of immediately going worldwide. Wired.com published “10 Updated Colloquialisms for the Modern Age” last year (by Anton Olson, 1/25/2010), including such treasures as “That’s a hard act to unfollow” and “One #hashtag does not a trending topic make.” Only time will tell if they prevail and for how long—the doornail example above (which actually had to do with a specific use of real nails) shows that even when a technique or technology becomes obsolete, the expression can live on.
Not all imagery may prove as persistent as the many figures of speech involving a certain body part in Armenian: As Irina Petrosian and David Underwood put it (in Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore) Armenians “love with their liver, feel pain in their liver, talk with their liver and eat with their liver”. And when they want to eat your liver, they are head over heels for you.