Translating Sayings from Dutch into English

One of the most difficult aspects of translating from one language to another is the difference between sayings and figure of speech. The difficulty of these translations is that it is natural to think that sayings can translate exactly into different languages. This is also the case when translating from Dutch into English. One of my favorite examples is the following:

The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Gerbrandy, went to England to have a meeting with Winston Churchill. While walking through the park, Mr. Churchill said: “Ah, Spring is in the air!” A baffled Mr. Gerbrandy responded: “Why should I?”

The story above is a misunderstanding that happens quite easily. The reason Mr. Gerbrandy became confused was because, in Dutch, the word “spring” means “to jump”. Mr. Gerbrandy thought that Winston Churchill had asked him to jump in the air, and clearly thought this was an odd request.

The reason why this story is appealing is because it sheds light on a common problem that people from the Netherlands often experience. Popular sayings tend to be misunderstood while talking to a person who isn’t a native speaker. When trying to overcome these problems, it is important to understand that many sayings have historic background. Also, some sayings convey the same idea but are worded differently. A good example of this is the following:

While giving a lecture at Delft University, one of the professors said: “I have an equation picked from the sky.” What he was trying to say was that he pulled the equation out of thin air.

When translating a saying, it is important to keep examples like these in mind, and to find out if the saying even exists in the target language.

Here are some helpful steps to follow:

  • When translating a saying within a document, read the whole paragraph first. Try to understand the context the saying is placed in.
  • After understanding the context the saying is placed in, make sure to know the exact meaning of the saying. Sometimes, a saying can have similar versions.
  • Lastly, translate the saying. Knowing a native speaker of the target language could also be helpful, but plenty of resources, like a thesaurus, can be found online.

Following these three simple steps limits the possibility of confusing the readers or your client. But, perhaps, the professor’s example is the best advice: when translating a saying, don’t pick it from the sky.

About Tim Oldenhuis

I’m a native Dutch translator living in the Netherlands. I translate for Coursera to help make education accessible for everyone. My interests are SEO, Gamification and Marketing. I translate website content and blogs, primarily from English and German into Dutch.