French idioms about the sea

A sea of French idioms

With summer only one month away and the sun making a comeback in Cornwall, it’s difficult not to feel the call of the sea. This is why Anja is taking Team AJT on an exciting surf lesson today. So let’s celebrate the beauty of the Newquay seaside with idioms from across the sea. It will also be the very first time surfing for most of the team so wish us luck!

Here is a list of water-related French idioms you might not know:

Un vieux loup de mer = An old sea bass

This idiom dates back to the eighteenth century and, surprisingly, it does not refer to the fish but to quite a different animal: the wolf (the French word for a sea bass being loup de mer and the one for wolf being loup), an animal that was then seen as solitary. So you may ask yourself what the link with the sea is in this idiom… Well, there are two possible interpretations for this one. Some will say that sailors, as wolves, lead a solitary life while at sea and therefore would have trouble fitting in when they return. Others will argue that this relates more to the courage and determination of sailors.

Nowadays, the idiom un vieux loup de mer is used to name a hardened and experienced man, who can sometimes also be somewhat bad-tempered.

Rester le bec dans l’eau = Being left with one’s beak in the water

If you’ve ever been left high and dry, this is an idiom for you. Here, the bec, or beak, refers to the mouth of a person who’s left with nothing after strongly desiring and being promised something for a very long time. While this is not certain, eau, or water, could also refer to another idiom: mettre l’eau à la bouche or make one’s mouth water.

Nager entre deux eaux = Swim between two seas

Another idiom inspired by sailing, this one is a reference to boats sailing between two seas and which, while being tossed around, still manage to stay on course.

Nager entre deux eaux is used to talk about someone who, in times of conflicts, doesn’t side with anyone and remains neutral. Alternatively, this idiom can also have a negative meaning when it is used to refer to a person who is hesitant and isn’t honest about their thoughts.

Une mer d’huile = A sea of oil

Une mer d’huile is a calm sea, without any waves. This idiom dates back to Ancient Greece, when Greeks used to pour oil into the sea. As oil and water don’t mix, the oil would stay on the surface of the sea, which, as a result, gave the impression of a calmer sea.

Se noyer dans un verre d’eau = Drowning in a glass of water

Back in eighteenth-century France, to say that someone se noierait dans un verre d’eau was to refer to a person as so unlucky that they could have actually died from drowning in a glass of water. Today though, it is used to talk about a person who is incapable of facing any hardship, even the smallest one, without feeling overwhelmed.


For more French and German idioms, have a look at our past blog posts Utterly butterly: My favourite 5 French idioms all about butter and German idioms: It’s all about the sausage.

Literary translation: what's the story?

Translated fiction: What’s the story?

Korean novel The Vegetarian, a dark tale about a woman who decides to stop eating meat and become a tree, was last week awarded the coveted Man Booker International prize, which is shared equally between its Korean author Han Kang and its English translator, Deborah Smith. With the popularity of translated fiction ever on the rise in the UK and even selling better than non-translated fiction, we got thinking about the specialist field of literary translation and about our favourite translated novels.

Translating novels presents its own challenges, which can place it squarely on a par with technical translations on the difficulty scale. The literary translator faces a huge amount of decisions, being ultimately responsible for what can be seen as the holy grail task of re-producing the same effect the original had on the new target readership. For this to even be possible, a brilliant mix of sound knowledge of both the source and target culture and context, flawless command of their native language, and great confidence to make bold decisions is required.


The Vegetarian book cover

Image credit:

Understanding the author and their intentions

The fiction translator needs to really get inside the author’s head. This means reading and re-reading the novel to recognise the style, nuance, context and any different interpretations. It also often means collaborating closely with the author themselves and with publishers. It seems to be in this respect that Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian was so successful – she has been praised for maintaining the many different interpretations of the story intended and hinted at by Han Kang.

Another novel with many different interpretations is my favourite translated book, Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). A tale about a young man who wakes up to find himself transformed into “Ungeziefer” (a general term for a “bug” of sorts), the many different English translators who have tackled it must have struggled not only with how to translate “Ungeziefer” itself (as vermin, bug, insect, bedbug, among others), but also with the many different meanings and interpretations Kafka intended to evoke through his writing. For me, the best translated version is by Christopher Moncrieff, who takes the novel on in a very idiosyncratic way.

Franz Kafka The Metamorphosis book cover

Image credit:

Evoking the same response in the new readership

At the same time as getting inside the head of the author, the successful literary translator must squarely position themselves in the new reader’s shoes, writing in a way that stirs the same emotions and feelings for them as it does for the readers of the original. After having a discussion about our favourite translated novels in the office, Anja said she feels that the English translation of Der Schwarm (The Swarm) by Frank Schätzing is very successful in this respect. A novel carrying an important message about the destruction of marine ecosystems, the story follows a group investigating freak events on the world’s oceans. Having enjoyed the German original so much, Anja read the English translation, and felt that the translator, Sally-Ann Spencer, did a great job of capturing and evoking the same emotions she felt the first time round.

Frank Schätzing The Swarm book cover

Image credit:

Translating confidently and creatively

With this aim of achieving the same effect in the new readership, the literary translator needs a creative mind, confidence and also needs to grant themselves a great deal of freedom. The French and German Harry Potter translations, which had a big impact on both Daniel and Cassandre growing up, are prime examples. The translators made J.K. Rowling’s magical, exciting world full of wordplay fully accessible and did a great job taking the freedom to localise the names and places that were full of meaning. For instance, French Harry Potter translator Jean-François Ménard coined the French name for Hogwarts school, “Poudlard” (inferring “poux-de-lard” which means “bacon lice”) and also Severus Snape’s surname, “Rogue” (meaning ‘haughty’), among dozens of other inventions. Without such confident translations both the humour and Rowling’s attention to the detail would have been lost. Elsewhere, the German translator Klaus Fritz’s translation is a very idiomatic read. Where he was unable to replicate wordplay, such as with the name “Diagon Alley”, translated simply as “Winklegasse” (Corner Alley), he instead strove to reproduce the same flow of wordplay in the novel as a whole, sometimes inventing new jokes to make up for any that were lost in translation.

Harry Potter book cover

Image credit:

Loving what you do

Literary translators need a great deal of passion and perseverance, and to be prepared for many drafts and re-drafts. It is certainly a very rewarding branch of the translation industry. Thanks to literary translators, the inaccessible becomes accessible for us all to enjoy. As acclaimed Italian writer Italo Calvino said:

“Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”

Sarah Wheldon translation project manager

Say hello to our new Project Manager and translator

A big welcome to Sarah, the newest member of the team. Sarah will be project managing many of our exciting translation jobs and will also be translating into English.

A Cornish bird who has recently flown back to the nest, Sarah previously worked as a Translation Project Manager in London. She missed the sea air and is very excited to be back!

Sarah has a MA in Audiovisual Translation and is fluent in French and Spanish. She has experience in project managing, translating and subtitling for advertising and corporate films.

With experience as an English teacher in Spain, Sarah has a flair and passion for the English language. She also loves reading and creative writing, and in her spare time writes a food blog,

In Newquay, Sarah plans to learn to surf properly after years of failed attempts. She also cannot wait to join one of the local choirs as she loves to sing.

We are really excited to welcome Sarah to our growing team. With a background in audiovisual translation, Sarah brings a new set of skills to our company and we look forward to offering subtitling as a new service in the near future.

Welcome to the team, Sarah!