Eating like a buffalo

When my maternal grandfather came to the United States from Germany as a teenager, he brought along a treasure of adages in his native Low German. Some of those sayings are in rhyming verse; a few are a bit earthy. Most impart a gem of wisdom.

Opa shared those bits of German horse sense and nonsense with his 12 children and over the years I enjoyed listening to my mother and aunts and uncles repeat those little Low German ditties. I understand the language well enough to get the gist of many of the sayings, though I often had to ask to have them repeated a few times. Other times I would just ask for a translation.

One maxim I remember hearing my mother say when I was a kid: “Luetje pot hebbt groot ohren.” You may recognize the English version: “Little pots have big ears” or, more literally, “children hear everything.”

In their original language the maxims are delightful and descriptive. Too often, though, they don’t translate well into English. The message may still there but they lose their color and charm in the translation.

Since a language reflects so much more than just words, translating can be tricky. Think about it. How would you translate “to eat crow” for a foreign visitor? It’s possible but the translation may be less colorful.

While searching for something else one day, I came across a list of American idioms and their foreign counterparts. For instance, the Italians have a phrase which corresponds with our “naked as a jaybird” expression. In Italy they say “nudo come un verme,” which means “naked as a worm.” If you’re packing it away in a pizzeria in Rome and you hear someone say, “Mangiare come un bufalo” take note. That’s Italian for “to eat like a buffalo” which is, you guessed it, equivalent to our “to eat like a pig.”

If a Norwegian were to tell you not to judge a book by its cover, he or she may say, “Man skal ikke skue hunden på hårene” or don’t judge a dog by its hairs.”

In a fit of mental surrender, you may have thrown up your hands and blurted, “It’s Greek to me!” In France, one would exclaim, “C’est de chinois!” That means “it’s Chinese!” I wonder what the Greeks and the Chinese say?

The French have a unique way of describing a knock-kneed condition. On the beach you may hear someone say, “Avoir les Jambes en X.” That means “to have your legs in an X.” From what I’ve heard about some French beaches, however, I doubt if knock-knees would even be noticed.

I much prefer the American phrase “to turn up like a bad penny” to France’s “arriver comme un cheveu sun la soupe.” I think you’ll agree that our expression is more pleasant than “to arrive like a hair in the soup.”

The Spanish also have some colorful locutions. Where we might say, “There’s always room for one more,” our Spanish friends may say, “Donde come seis, comen siete.” My Spanish is extremely limited, but according to the list I found that means “where six can eat, seven can eat.”

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” is vivid enough, but I like the Spanish equivalent: “A monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey.” And I love the Spanish counterpart to our “to have the tables turned.” They say, “To go out for wool and to come home shorn.”

My Jewish friends occasionally toss around Yiddish maxims. Yiddish, by the way, is the historic language of European Jews and is a mixture of German, Hebrew and a few other languages.

There are, I learned, some Yiddish phrases which parallel a few of ours. You might say, for instance, “You can only do one thing at a time.” The equivalent in Yiddish is “you can’t dance at two weddings at the same time.” You might say, “He repeats himself.” In Yiddish, it is said, “He grinds ground flour.” You might ask, “Are you in a hurry?” In Yiddish, it may be asked, “Are you standing on one leg?”

Incidentally, in regards to that “eat crow” phrase, if you’re talking with an Italian, just say, “mordere il rospo.” According to the article I read that means “to swallow the toad.” Same thing.

Mama mia, I think I’ll stick with English!

Arvid Huisman can be contacted at huismaniowa@gmail.com. ©2024 by Huisman Communications.


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