Strangers on a train 2017

Stranger things have (never) happened on a steam train: a review of Strangers on a train 2017

I have to start with an admission: I have a bit of a professional crush on the Stranger Collective.

Ever since we first had the opportunity to collaborate with the copywriting geniuses at Stranger, translating their beautifully crafted blogs for Coca-Cola’s Think Positively Collective into five languages (this was way back in 2010 and our very first multilingual project), I’ve admired their ability to produce outstanding and ever-fresh content.

Here at AJT, we translate anything between 200,00 and 400,000 words into German and French each month, and in the process of dissecting someone’s written words in one language and reconstructing them eloquently in another, we have come to really appreciate ‘good content’. Content where each individual sentence makes sense on its own, and then effortlessly and logically links in with the next. Intelligent content that engages and tickles one’s interest to read on.

But apart from being the oh-my-god-I-wish-I-could-write-as-amazingly-as-you content creators, Strangers also know how to put on a good event. The kind of event that gets your synapses firing, that makes you think about your own life and passions, and that inspires you to [insert your own lightbulb moment here].

Having attended the magical Raft event in 2014, otherwise referred to as “a lifeboat of fresh thinking in the sea of the ordinary” (you can read a lovely review about the event here), I was chomping at the bit when I received an invitation to Strangers on a Train, a one-day micro ‘thought festival’ that promised to spark new creativity, collaboration and intrigue.

Set on a vintage train and inspired by 1930s fashion, Strangers on a Train was an absolutely magical experience. From professional actors reading short stories to a make-up artist adding a dash of period-appropriate sparkle to your face (including a mini massage!); from a quiet carriage to learn about the important work of Children in Crisis to a mini disco; from a delectable Tarquin’s gin and tonic (courtesy of Sharp’s brewery) to melodic musical renditions, each of the train’s compartments was a little mini story in itself.

But there were also inspiring talks. Simon Cohen, founder of Global Tolerance, a communications agency with a conscience, talked about the importance of optimism and how we can lead more fulfilling lives when we focus on other people’s happiness. That ‘good luck’ isn’t something that ‘happens to us’ but something that we help to make happen by taking proactive, and sometimes even brave, steps.

In another carriage, Annie Atkins, a graphic designer for the film industry, talked about her experiences of working with director Wes Anderson to create the props for the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. Whether it’s innocuous props like a stamp (each passenger got to take home a printed stamp as used in the film!) or very prominent props like the Mendl’s “pattisserie” box (which should be spelt with one t, not two, as Annie learnt the hard way after Wes spotted her typo halfway through the movie – after about 200 scenes had already been shot featuring her beautifully hand-lettered box), Annie provided a great insight into the effort that goes into making movie props that are truly authentic.

And all of this was just happening on the train. On the platform, musicians like Tom Dale and The Mighty Spectres provided the perfect soundtrack to an unforgettable evening, while The Kitchen provided delicious nourishment (there was a whole deer lying on a butcher’s block being expertly ‘dismantled’ as the train left the station, and it was sizzling on the BBQ as the train pulled back in).

One of Stranger’s straplines is “a bazaar of talents…”, and Strangers on a Train was just that – from the organisational talents who planned this event to all the wonderful people who contributed on the day to make this such a special happening (and yes, I am unashamedly including a proverbial wink to the handsome conductor in the smart First Great Western uniform here). Thank you Strangers, you well and truly delivered on your promise!

Eagle eyes and monkey business

Eagle eyes and monkey business: how animals are perceived in different languages

It is commonly known that different cultures perceive and treat animals in entirely different ways: whereas dogs are seen as food in some parts of China, they are the most beloved pets in Western Europe. Cows are considered holy in India, but are the core ingredient of almost every hamburger in Great Britain. But apart from religious beliefs and dietary preferences, our perceptions of animals are mirrored in human languages.

We tend to associate certain characteristics with certain animals. Animal metaphors are common in most languages. They are often used in emotionally charged situations, when ordinary literal speech fails to express one’s feelings, and they usually evoke a strong emotional response. So let’s have a quick look at animal metaphors in English, German and Spanish, and what they tell us about the characteristics we associate with certain animals.


Rats really don’t seem to come off well in any of the presented languages. In German they use the phrase “Eine linke Ratte sein” (to be a left rat) as a swearword to designate a person as a fraud or to point out that a person is devious. In Spanish the idiom “Ser una rata” (to be a rat) means that someone is a cheapskate, and in English they embody people who run away as soon as a situation gets tricky as in the saying “like rats abandoning a sinking ship”.


Apparently, we think of chickens as cowardly: in German they express this notion with the idiom “Feiges Huhn” (cowardly chicken) and in Spanish they use “Ser una gallina” (to be a chicken) for someone who is afraid of doing something. Likewise in English the behaviour of intending to do something, but eventually not doing it out of fear is often described with the idiom “to chicken out”.


Fish are versatile creatures. For one thing, we all seem to agree that fish are more comfortable in the water rather than out of it, even though the same concept is expressed slightly differently in different cultures. While in English, the idiom “To be like a fish out of water” means that someone feels awkward and out of place, in Spanish “Estar como pez en el agua” (to be like a fish in water) and in German “Sich wie ein Fisch im Wasser fühlen” (to be like a fish in water) it expresses that someone feels rather comfortable. But fish seem to have loads of other qualities: in Spanish, fish are labelled as forgetful “Tener la memoria de pez’’ (to have the memory of a fish), in German they are considered to be shy and the exact opposite of being talkative “Stumm wie ein Fisch” (to be as mute as a fish) and in English they are just plain weird “fishy”.


Donkeys are perceived in different ways: In German, donkeys are said to be very hardheaded as expressed in the saying “Stur wie ein Esel” (to be as stubborn as a donkey). In English, it’s possible to utter this sentiment with the saying “to be as stubborn as a mule”. But donkey metaphors are also used in other contexts. Apparently, donkeys are often engaged in boring work and have to perform hard labour as enunciated in the idiom “donkey work”. In Spanish, however, donkeys are seen as rude and having crude manners. At least that is the meaning of the expression “Ser un burro” (to be a donkey).


So, goats don’t seem to have an easy life: in German they are generally thought of as being stupid “Dumme Ziege” (stupid goat) and in English they usually play the fool, expressed in the saying to “act the giddy goat”. Similarly, in Spanish they say “estar como una cabra” (to be like a goat), which means that someone or something is acting a little strange or out of the ordinary.


Apart from being elegant strong animals, we all seem to think that eagles have excellent vision. The expression “eagle eye” exists both in German “Adlerauge” and in Spanish “ojos de aguila”.

Cats and mice

Now cover your ears or eyes if you are a cat lover, but those cuddly bundles of fur can be rather nasty – at least seen from the perspective of a mouse. Instead of simply killing hunted-down mice without further ado, cats tend to play with their unlucky victims for a while. The setting of this unfair battle has been used to describe the situation in which someone leaves somebody else in the lurch, in all of the presented languages: in English that would be “to play cat and mouse with someone”, in German they say “mit jemandem Katz und Maus spielen” and in Spanish it is “jugar al gato y al ratón”.


Last but not least, let’s have a look at the contradictory perceptions of monkeys in the presented languages: whereas in Spanish they stand for being pretty “Ser mona” (to be a monkey) in German they form part of an insult “Affengesicht” (face of a monkey). In English, however, they are used to express foolishness, like in the idiom “monkey business”.

What are your favourite animal metaphors? We’d love to hear from you!

Like herrings in a barrel - Dutch idioms

Like herrings in a barrel: 5 quirky Dutch idioms

Although I am a native Dutch speaker and have lived in the UK for many years, I still have the occasional embarrassing steenkolenengels (literally coal English) moment.  Also called Dunglish: the popular term to describe the mistakes made by some native Dutch speakers when speaking English. The Dutch term steenkolenengels goes back to the early twentieth century when Dutch port workers used a very basic form of English to communicate with the personnel of British coal ships.

Of course there is nothing more hilarious to my British friends and family when I use Dunglish, especially on such occasions when I attempt to translate a popular Dutch expression literally. ‘You what!?’

The Dutch language is full of idiomatic expressions. Their origins are often found in our rich nautical and maritime history and in our everlasting battle with water. Others have animal themes, refer to parts of the body or find their origins in Scripture. Here are some of my favourite Dutch idioms:

Nu komt de aap uit de mouw (Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve)

This means that the truth is finally revealed or you have seen a person’s true colours. According to a Dutch dictionary of idioms, het Groot Uitdrukkingenwoordenboek van Van Dale (2006), this goes back to times when street artists would literally hide a monkey in their coat or sleeves as part of a magic trick. 

Haar op de tanden hebben (to have hair on one’s teeth)

To be very strong or assertive. Apparently people used to think there was a link between body hair and strength! The more hair, the stronger the person. Therefore if someone had hair on such an impossible place as their teeth, they must have been very strong indeed.

Ben je van de trap gevallen? (Did you fall down the stairs?)

You might be asked this question after a visit to the hairdressers. Originally the saying was: ‘did you fall down the stairs and break your hair?’

Als haringen in een ton zitten (to sit like herrings in a barrel)

You don’t need a big imagination here. It means being in a crowded place.

Een ezel stoot zich in het gemeen niet tweemaal aan dezelfde steen (a donkey doesn’t bump into the same stone twice)

You won’t make the same mistake twice. Similar to the English expression: once bitten, twice shy.

For more quirky idioms, check out our Utterly Butterly blog in which Théo shares five of his favourite buttery French idioms and Anja’s It’s all about the sausage blog which explores sausage-related expressions in German.

nautical vocabulary in every english language

10 English expressions with nautical origins

Here at AJT, we live and translate by the sea. Every day we’re inspired by our relationship with the ocean, so we thought it might be fun to have a look at where some of the nautical terms found in our daily vocabulary originated. Some expressions have quite an obvious nautical connection: to know the ropes (to understand the procedure), to batten down the hatches (to prepare for a crisis), to be a loose cannon (to be out of control or unpredictable and likely to cause damage) or to give something a wide berth (to keep a safe distance) – you can quite easily see the connection there.

But there are plenty of other less apparent terms which you might not immediately associate with Britain’s seafaring past, so here’s our top 10:

1. To overwhelm

We can find ourselves overwhelmed in all kinds of ways. We might find ourselves ‘overwhelmed’ with emotion, or our football team completely ‘overwhelmed’ by another side. It also conveys the sense of being inundated or overpowered by something, and we may feel ‘overwhelmed’ by our workload, or a delicate flavour might be ‘overwhelmed’ by a much stronger one.

But closer to its original Old English nautical meaning of to capsize or founder (in fact ‘whelm’ comes from the Old English verb ‘qhelmen’, to turn upside down) is the notion of being submerged or drowning beneath a huge mass of something, especially water – a small sailing boat could easily be ‘overwhelmed’ by huge waves – and in this way we continue to use ‘overwhelm’ in the way it always has been.

2. To be groggy

If you’ve ever woken up from a poor night’s sleep or suffered from a heavy cold, you’ve probably found yourself feeling a bit dazed and weak, a bit ‘groggy’ perhaps?

But ‘groggy’ was first used to describe sailors who had drunk too much ‘grog’, a watered-down rum and water mixture ordered by a British Admiral in the 1800s. His nickname being “Old Grogram” due to the type of coat that he wore, naturally the term ‘grog’ was born, and it is still used today to describe an alcoholic drink. But whereas back in the 19th century ‘groggy’ described the state of being intoxicated, today we would refer to a person as drunk, legless or plastered, using ‘groggy’ to describe the feeling the day after indulging in a night of excess.

3. To be aloof

We can describe a person who comes across as distant or withdrawn and who may be seen as unapproachable and perhaps standoffish (or detached), as ‘aloof’.

‘Aloof’ actually originates from an old Dutch word ‘loef’ which meant ‘windward’ and was used when an individual vessel within a fleet would sail higher to the wind meaning it was drawn apart and sailed further away from the rest of the fleet.

4. To pipe down

If a person tells you to ‘pipe down’, they’re telling you in no uncertain terms to stop talking and be quiet!

In nautical terms, though, ‘pipe down’ was the name given to the last signal each day from the bosun’s pipe or whistle. The bosun, or boatswain, being the foreman of a ship’s crew, would sound the the ‘pipe down’ signal to signify time for lights out and silence below deck.

5. To fathom something out

When a person is attempting to come up with a solution to a problem or to work something out, it can be said that they are trying to ‘fathom it out’.

In nautical terms, a fathom is a six-foot (1.8-metre) measure used to determine the depth of water at sea with ‘to fathom’ being the act of taking the measurement. So, when you’re ‘fathoming something out’, you’re trying to get to the bottom of it – which makes perfect sense, when you think about it.

6. To be taken aback

We are said to ‘be taken aback’ when we find ourselves taken by surprise by something we really weren’t expecting.

However, the phrase originates from a nautical situation in which a ship finds itself heading up into the wind with its sails pressed back against the mast (said to be ‘aback’). With the wind on the wrong side of the sails the ship finds itself forced astern (backwards), a perilous situation for the crew.

7. Something is in the offing

When something is ‘in the offing’, it’s imminent, it won’t be long before whatever is expected to happen, happens.

A sailor, though, would know that the ‘offing’ is the part of the sea that can be seen from land, although not that part nearest the shore. If a long-awaited ship was ‘in the offing, its arrival was imminent, and it’s easy to see how this sense has been carried through to its present-day usage.

8. By and large

‘By and large’ is a general term used to refer to the bigger picture – ‘By and large’ this blog post is a very informative read; It’s been a great holiday, ‘by and large’.

However, at one time sailors would use ‘by’ to mean ‘into the wind’ and ‘large’ to mean ‘off the wind’ so a phrase such as ‘by and large this ship handles quite nicely’ means that the ship sails well, both into the wind and off the wind, which seems like the best of both worlds to us.

9. Hand over fist

We use ‘Hand over fist’ to refer to a steady and rapid gain and it’s most often used when talking about money – to make (or lose) money ‘hand over fist’.

However, the phrase started out life as ‘hand over hand’, a British nautical term for the act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail, which was a matter of pride and competition among sailors. It is thought that American sailors subsequently changed this term to ‘hand over fist’.

10. The cut of one’s jib

The ‘cut of one’s jib’ is used to make reference to a person’s, usually well-dressed, appearance – you may like ‘the cut of someone’ jib’.

In nautical terms the jib is the triangular sail stretched in front of the foremast. Warships often had their jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. If a captain sighted thin foresails on a distant ship he might decide that he didn’t like the ‘cut of his jib’ and would then take the opportunity to escape.

So, whether you’re a landlubber (an inexperienced seaman who would probably fare better on land), or a bit of an old salt (an old, retired or experienced sailor), we hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post as much as we’ve enjoyed researching it.

Are you a fellow ocean lover? Follow our hashtag #translatebythesea on Instagram!

Just another lunch time in Newquay 😎 happy weekend everyone! #newquay #cornwall #translatebythesea

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Quick post meeting lunch stop in Perranporth! #Cornwall #translatebythesea #translationservices

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Chambers Dictionary of Etymology
The Chambers Dictionary

Careers for foreign language students

Top 10 jobs using foreign languages

I am an Upper Sixth Form student studying French, German and Italian. I love learning foreign languages and hope to pursue this passion at university. Not only are modern language skills highly desirable in the eyes of employers, but they also enable you to gain a better understanding of the world in general, through learning about different cultures, histories and politics. In the following blog I have gathered some examples of career pathways that languages can take you down, hopefully highlighting the fact: languages can take you anywhere.

Journalist with the BBC

One of the best skills you can have as a journalist is the ability to speak a foreign language. Often, employers will favour those with a modern language degree than those with English language or literature graduates- thus leading to more rapid employment. Even possessing some conversational skills can be highly sought after, as it enables journalists to pursue lines of research that may have otherwise been made impossible due to a language barrier. Interviewing abroad is far more likely to be successful if the journalist can speak the interviewee’s mother tongue, as they can more easily connect with one another. The BBC is a co-operation that is always searching for journalists with modern language skills- for example, in October 2016 they were looking for a Senior Broadcast Journalist with French skills to coordinate their BBC Africa coverage. Without modern language skills, such a prestigious job opportunity would be not be available.

Linguist for Waverly Labs

Knowledge of foreign languages can also facilitate a career in a scientific domain; namely linguistics. This is the study of the science of language, which includes phonetics, language acquisition and syntax among many others. Often, such careers are carried out in research institutions or high-tech companies. One such example is working for Waverly Labs, in their development of a smart earpiece called “Pilot”, which is designed to instantly translate languages and talk in your ear (much like “Babelfish” from the popular film ‘Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy’). This earpiece will initially translate latin/romance languages, but there are plans to expand into other language families in the future. Linguists could combine a language career with computer science to ensure that “Pilot” translations are as accurate and natural as possible.

Language analyst at MI5

Possibly the most exciting job on the market for linguists, MI5 is constantly looking for people able to speak, understand and listen to many different languages and dialects (in October 2016 alone there were five job openings for language analysts at MI5). Not only are excellent language skills required, but also a deep understanding of the culture, history and politics of different countries is essential. Although they may not lead as action-packed a life as James Bond, language analysts still play a key role in keeping our country safe.

Interpreter for the United Nations

Interpreters are indispensable in the world of politics. An organisation that relies heavily on the skills of its interpreters is the UN. They have to instantly and perfectly relay information from one language to another, thus allowing the UN to function. UN interpreters work in teams to interpret meetings, for bodies like the Security Council and the General Assembly which deal with a plethora of topics: anything from finance to human rights. Therefore, requirements for this job include a perfect command of one official language (English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese and Russian) and oral comprehension in two further official languages.

Buying Manager for Lidl

A company that has grown exponentially, Lidl is now considered a Times Top 100 employer. It has a Junior Buying Manager scheme for talented young graduates – an opportunity which could be exploited by young graduate linguists. This is a competitive scheme, due to the high starting salary (of £36,000) and various extras, such as a fully expensed company car and private medical insurance. Although fluency in German is not essential, it is preferred so, when Lidl is faced with two equally accomplished candidates, a bilingual German/English speaker is more likely to be hired.

English Language Assistant for the British Council

There is a growing demand for native English speakers to teach English abroad. On top of being paid a teaching salary, the British Council may sometimes pay for your accommodation and even flights. Placements can be undertaken in a vast array of countries, from Mozambique to Venezuela – such exciting opportunities for travelling makes this is a popular choice of placement year for students studying modern languages at university. Some form of language skill is a pre-requisite (except for placements in China), as it enables the English Language Assistants to immerse fully in the culture of the country for the duration of their placement.

UK Civil Servant through the European Fast Stream

To apply for this job, fluency in another language is not necessary, but at least a C grade or above in an A-level EU member state language is expected. It is a four-year long scheme, which will allow you to work both in the UK and in mainland Europe. Almost every department of the UK government is involved with the EU in some way, so there are many different fields available to specialise in, like, for example, the writing of a new border control agreement for the Home Office. Post-Brexit, this job is more important and relevant than ever, as young linguists will be key in negotiations between the UK and the EU to foster the development of a mutually beneficial relationship.

‘Voice’ of the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games

8,000 linguistic specialists were required in the summer of 2016 to help translate the Olympic atmosphere into over 30 languages for representatives of over 200 countries. These linguists had a range of roles, from organising press conferences and cultural programmes, to accompanying athletes to and from events. Candidates can be as young as 18 years old and, although this is a voluntary role, it would provide a rich insight into different cultures for any linguist. Other advantages include free food, transport and training for the role. It is certain that such skills will also be needed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Translator with Anja Jones Translation Agency

Translators are vital in translating the written word in a way that makes sense in different languages, specialising in fields ranging from legal and political translation, to app and website translation. This helps avoid confusion and a misrepresentation of meaning across languages, enabling people from all nationalities to understand what has been written. One of the many industries that translation is important for is the business world. For example, when companies want to expand across borders, translators (like those at Anja Jones Translation Agency) are crucial in relaying the brand identity to maximise the chances of a successful establishment in the market.

Why should you study modern foreign languages?

All of these examples should have shown what amazing career opportunities foreign language skills can create. If this has not convinced you to start learning a language, then here is another reason: it’s fun!

This article was written by Eddie Sidebotham as part of his work experience week at AJT.

Introducing Noreen, our translation intern for the summer

We are today extending a very warm welcome to our translation intern Noreen, who will be joining us over the summer months.

Originally from Lille, France, Noreen is half-way through a 2-year Masters in Translation at the University of Lille. She is pleased to be back in the UK, where she feels right at home, having previously lived and studied in Worcester and Birmingham.

Noreen is a creative soul with a real interest in all things audiovisual and also a love for literary translation. She is a keen writer and has even written and recited her own poetry – we hope there may be an ode to Newquay in the pipeline!

Though she only arrived yesterday, Noreen has already noted how similar Cornwall is to the beautiful region of Brittany in France, where her mother grew up, and cannot wait to get out and explore.

Noreen is very much looking forward to the next two months, and is keen to get more acquainted with the various translation software we use, and to get to know in more depth how agencies are run on a day-to-day basis.

Cornish language translation

A Taste of the Cornish language

Dhyd da! At AJT we may hail from places as far flung as Dresden, Luxemburg, and Burgundy, but that doesn’t stop us feeling that pang of pride for Cornwall and for all things Cornish.

The region has a distinct cultural heritage, along with its very own language, which makes it a truly special and unique place to call home. Being the language-lovers and Cornwall-lovers that we are, it goes without saying that we were all extremely excited to see the world’s first ever Cornish TV advert aired on national television last week, putting this little-known regional language firmly back on the map. And what’s more, the ad was for delicious Cornish ice cream.

You can see the 30-second advert, which is for Kelly’s of Cornwall’s ice cream, below. The ad features a Cornishman serving ice cream in a field and speaking animatedly in Common Cornish about their new range of flavours, stating: “Yma res nowydh kavadow a Kelly’s Cornish ice cream hag yw as tasty as” (There’s a new range of Kelly’s Cornish ice cream available that is as tasty as).

As mere beginners of the Cornish language, so far knowing only words such as “Kernow” (“Cornwall”) and “Myttin da” (“good morning”), the advert has certainly whet our appetite. But exactly what is Common Cornish, and who speaks it today?

Cornish is a Celtic language with very similar roots to both Welsh and French Breton. It was Cornwall’s main language for centuries, with the earliest written examples dating all the way back to the 9th century. Cornish went into decline and had all but disappeared from everyday use in the 19th century. However, thanks to the work of individuals, who documented the language, a process of revival began, leading UNESCO to change the status of Common Cornish from “extinct” to “critically endangered” in 2009.

In Cornwall today, over 500 people say Cornish is their main language, and this number is growing. There are also magazines in Cornish, as well as some radio broadcasts and newspaper articles. And it seems that there are even some Cornish speakers living as far as Australia and the US!

For more about the Cornish language, Kelly’s have developed this very useful Cornish phrasebook.

To get you up and running, here is a transcript of the Cornish advert in full:


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

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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

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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

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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.”

Honing your language skills: Learning through translation

The majority of people nowadays speak a second language. After all, it is quite a useful talent in our globalised world where you are more and more likely to meet speakers of a foreign language. You may be required to become bilingual either because of your job or because you are moving to another country. Or you might choose to learn a language to broaden your horizons: maybe you want to read a famous book in the language it was originally written. Or, on your next trip to the Black Forest, you want to order your “Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte” in German without getting a bemused look in reply. Whatever your reasons for learning a new language, if you want to improve your language skills, you will have to get a lot of language practice done. If you are looking for an alternative to the usual methods of language practice, you might want to try translation. Why? The magic word is “research”.

The translation task – should you choose to accept it – requires you to know your vocab and helps you achieve this aim. When translating a text, translators (and all you language learners out there) have one very important aim: to understand what the author is trying to say. But it is not enough to merely understand the gist of a sentence. Before you can get to work, you have to make sure that you understand the meaning of every word in the text – both the dictionary definition and the contextual meaning.

When you are faced with unknown words, contexts and subject matters, you’ll need to put on your researcher’s hat and do some digging. You’d be surprised where that research can lead you. I’ll give you an example:

I once had to translate a short French text about cheese. Somewhere towards the end, the author declared in a seemingly jokey way that there are more than 246 varieties of cheese in France after all. This didn’t make any sense to me at all. Did somebody claim that this was the case? And even if they had, why was this reference funny? After some lengthy research into the subject of French cheese, French national identity, the history of France (Général de Gaulle and the 1960s) and the writing style of this particular author, I finally found the answer! It was a reference to a famous quote by the former president of France. He had asked in 1962 how one could possibly govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese. Apparently, this was his way of saying that there are lots of different people living in France and that, as a politician, it’s really difficult to make everyone happy. So when the author used de Gaulle’s cheese metaphor to talk about actual cheese, it was a French “insider joke” that readers would only be able to understand if they are familiar with French culture and history.

The original quote, including context and explanation, was easy enough to find, but the extra bit of reading I did around the topic gave me some additional insight into French culture and history – all of which also strengthened my French language skills.

Translation, and the research it entails, compels and helps you to go the extra mile in order to understand what the source text is saying. Your translation needs to accurately reflect the original text – you can’t skip words just because you don’t understand them. This may sound like a lot of work, but it can actually be very rewarding: if you don’t understand a word, you can’t go on with your translation, so you have to keep digging for those important nuggets of information. You read your way around and into a subject until you become somewhat of an expert on the matter.

Translating texts, researching information and reading articles in a foreign language is so much more fun than learning long vocab lists by heart or working your way through dry grammar exercises – it’s a fun way to discover new words, improve your language skills and learn about new things (even if it’s just about cheese). And with all this concerted effort for just one text, you’d be hard pressed to forget the words you researched! So why not give it a go?