40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally

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We have this constant debate pitching literary translations against free translation. Here’s an interesting list of idioms which quite makes the argument for both at the same time.

TED Blog

Tomato_Eyes What does it mean to “have tomatoes on your eyes?” Find out below…

By Helene Batt and Kate Torgovnick May

It’s a piece of cake. You can’t put lipstick on a pig. Why add fuel to the fire? Idioms are those phrases that mean more than the sum of their words. As our Open Translation Project volunteers translate TED Talks into 105 languages, they’re often challenged to translate English idioms into their language. Which made us wonder: what are their favorite idioms in their own tongue?

Below, we asked translators to share their favorite idioms and how they would translate literally. The results are laugh-out-loud funny.

From German translator Johanna Pichler:

The idiom: Tomaten auf den Augen haben.
Literal translation: “You have tomatoes on your eyes.”
What it means: “You are not seeing what everyone else can see. It refers to real objects, though — not abstract meanings.”

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Introduction to Reading Across India

The best library I have ever been to once stretched across the length and breadth of three rooms. The books in it shivered in huge wobbly heaps on the floor at a house almost next door. And my best friend lived there.

Her father, the late P. Govinda Pillai, was a writer and a voracious reader who filled his life with books, books and more books. It was only natural that the rooms of his house spill over with books of all shapes, sizes and genres. They jostled with the steady stream of visitors in the various rooms, listening with fluttering pages to political and cultural conversations as well as housekeeping woes. Tired of being gently pushed off tables and shelves by newer books, a multitude of weeklies and a dozen dailies, they finally climbed the steps to live upstairs, squeezing into spaces wherever they could. They huddled into corners, held onto ceilings, and at times simply hugged each other on the cold red floor. The wind and the sun peeped into the open balcony, guarded by a three-strip, faded bamboo curtain, yet they almost never hurt the books, except perhaps stroke them in broad yellow marks on their covers.

And it was to this haven that I made a weekly trip, to choose a few pieces of ecstacy in words. My odyssey into reading began here. Continue reading

Romesh Gunesekera, Writer from Sri Lanka: An Interview

‘We are only what we remember, nothing more… all we have is the memory of what we have done or not done’: Mister Salgado to Triton in Romesh Gunesekera’s The Reef.

Twenty years of the writing life and seven books to show. Add at least a dozen nominations or awards over the globe. This is Romesh Gunesekera, born in Colombo, raised in Manila and resident in London. His writing is often spoken of by critics as reflecting the imaginative vision of a writer who explores ‘home’ through the migrant frame of memory.

Romesh’s first book, ‘Monkfish Moon’ (1992) was an anthology of short stories about ordinary people caught up in the politics and ethnical strife of Sri Lanka, and made him a finalist at the Commonwealth Writers’ Regional Prize 1993. His ‘Reef’ (1994) was a Booker and Guardian Fiction Prize 1994 Finalist, and the winner of the Premio Mondello Five Continents Asia Prize 1997, and Yorkshire Post First Work Prize 1995. His ‘Sandglass’ (1998), was awarded the inaugural BBC Asia Award for Achievement in Writing and Literature.

His latest, ‘Noon Tide Toll’, is an extraordinary portrait of post-war Sri Lanka in a series of connected short stories. The book is currently on the nominations list to The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015.

Team ELJ (where I am a contributing editor) talked to Gunesekera on his writing, perceptions and his latest book in June 2014.
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Written with élan

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee, which was on the Booker short list 2014, is a saga of Bengali upper middle-class life juxtaposed against the Naxal movement of the late 1960s. Sketched on a large tapestry and involving three generations of members of a joint family who live in a sprawling multi-storeyed bungalow in Bhowanipore, this is no diaspora take on life in 1960s-‘Calcutta’. The hard-bound volume of 500 pages revolves around a people who have no sahib -connect or English-proficiency; they think, thankfully, in the vernacular; and effectively so, which is to the author’s credit. Continue reading

Shammi Kapoor, The Yahoo Man

When the Yahoo man of Indian celluloid, Shammi Kapoor, moved on to dance in the heavens, he left behind an unusual legacy. Shammi’s fascination for the internet was not known widely till the media, frantic for new Shammi snippets, caught on to the late superstar’s intense involvement with the World Wide Web. Shammi helped found the Internet Users Club of India way back in 1995.

In case you missed it all, here is a recap of the ‘Shammi and the Web’ tidbits going round.

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Fact and Fiction: A Review of Kenizé Mourad’s ‘In the City of Gold and Silver, The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal’

The ways of history are strange. It gifts some people bouquets, hands others brickbats, and yet others are left out, entirely. When the chronicles of the First Independence War of India were documented for the layman, names like Mangal Pandey, Lakshmi Bai, Tantia Tope, Nana Sahib and Bahadur Shah Zafar, and places like Lucknow, Jhansi, Delhi and Kanpur entered history books. But the brave woman ruler of Awadh, the last free leader of the rebellion who held out for two whole years, does not appear in the compelling narratives of the 1857 rising, except in isolated pictures of a hookah-smoking rebel queen, with less than a line in description. In the records of the British, she is referred to as the ‘soul of the 1857 War of Independence’. Continue reading

Translation: ‘In Hope They Trust’ by Chandramathi

This is my Translation of the short story ‘Varum Varaathirikkilla’ by my favourite and the very noted Malayalam author Chandramathi. This was published in 1999, in Malayalam, and translated for Papercuts for their Volume 12, for Fall 2013, themed ‘Dog eat Dog’, translated with the author’s permission.

In Hope They Trust’ 

The woman sat on a chair, near her beloved who was stretched out on the cot in eternal sleep. Several inmates shuffled in and out of the room. She saw everyone, yet did not see anyone. Another woman sat on another chair and murmured the lines from the all-religion-prayer that they usually recited at dusk. She was a friend of the first woman. She maintained her distance from the corpse and watched her friend whose eyes were perpetually wet.


‘Rachel’, she called out, ‘Don’t cry. The Lord calls everyone to him one day. Avarachan just happened to leave a day ahead. You haven’t even taken a sip of water since yesterday. Gather yourself up. And those who want to come will come in their own time. Shall I tell that girl Mary to get tea for you?’


‘No’, mumbled Rachel, ‘Let them come first.’ Continue reading