Sign Language Interpreters and Idioms



As an agency, we often get requests from those who believe sign language interpreters probably picked up an extra class at a community college, or maybe they have a deaf relative, or thought they were mostly “volunteers”. We really should have a perfect response recorded so we can just hit the play button.

Of the many skills required to interpret communication, one is the ability to translate idioms ‘on the fly’. 

The same interpretation skills are required in communications between English and ASL. This comes as a surprise to many. Hearing people have become used to phrases that literally make no sense.  “When pigs fly” ,  “For Pete’s sake” ,  “God willin and the creek don’t rise”……..etc  etc.  The words are spoken, instantly translated by the Interpreter, and then signed in such a way that the deaf person can understand the concept.  Some speakers use idioms A LOT and this can make an interpreting assignment quite exhausting. Foreign language interpreters have similar challenges.  Here are a few that – – if spoken to an English speaking person – – would most likely require translation 

Thanks to Helene Batt and Kate Torgovnick May for compiling these sample phrases from various world languages.

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?


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.”


The idiom: Att glida in på en räkmacka

Literal translation: “To slide in on a shrimp sandwich.”

What it means: “It refers to somebody who didn’t have to work to get where they are.”


The idiom: Avaler des couleuvres.
Literal translation
: “To swallow grass snakes.”
What it means: “It means being so insulted that you’re not able to reply.” 

The idiom: Sauter du coq à l’âne.
Literal translation
: “To jump from the cock to the donkey.”
What it means: “It means to keep changing topics without logic in a conversation.” 

The idiom: Les carottes sont cuites!
Literal translation
: “The carrots are cooked!”
What it means: “The situation can’t be changed.”
Other language connections: It’s bit like the phrase, “It’s no use crying over spilt milk,” in English.


Thai idiom:
Literal translation
: “Take ears to the field, take eyes to the farm.”
What it means: “It means ‘don’t pay any attention.’ Almost like ‘don’t bring your eyes and ears with you.’ If that were possible.”

Thai idiom: 
Literal translation: “The hen sees the snake’s feet and the snake sees the hen’s boobs.”
What it means: “It means two people know each other’s secrets.”

Thai idiom: 
Literal translation: “One afternoon in your next reincarnation.”
What it means: “It’s never gonna happen.”
Other languages this idiom exists in: A phrase that means a similar thing in English: “When pigs fly.” In French, the same idea is conveyed by the phrase, “when hens have teeth (quand les poules auront des dents).” In Russian, it’s the intriguing phrase, “When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain .” And in Dutch, it’s “When the cows are dancing on the ice (Als de koeien op het ijs dansen).”



Polish Idiom:
Literal translation
: “Did an elephant stomp on your ear?”
What it means: “You have no ear for music.”.

Polish Idiom:
Literal translation
: “Did you fall from a Christmas tree?”
What it means: “You are not well informed, and it shows.”


The idiom:
Literal translation: 
“To wear a cat on one’s head.”
What it means: “You’re hiding your claws and pretending to be a nice, harmless person.”

The idiom: 
Literal translation: 
“Willing to borrow a cat’s paws.”*
What it means: “You’re so busy that you’re willing to take help from anyone.” 

The idiom:
Literal translation: 
“Cat’s forehead.”
What it means: “A tiny space. Often, you use it when you’re speaking humbly about land that you own.”

The idiom: 
Literal translation:
 “Cat tongue.”
What it means: “Needing to wait until hot food cools to eat it.”

Yes, Japanese has quite a few cat idioms.


So, there you have it……….or as the Brits say  “Bob’s Your Uncle”!


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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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