One of the joys — and occasionally frustrations — of learning another language is understanding and using idioms. An idiom is a commonly used phrase or saying that combines specific ideas which are not meant to be understood literally but impart a message that is descriptive in a more abstract and colourful sense. For example, the English idiom ”over the moon” means to be delighted or very happy about something, whereas the complete opposite is being ”down in the dumps”. Mastery of idioms is a sign a person is proficient in another language. However, one should be careful: use the idiom correctly and you sound like a native, but use it incorrectly and you might run into trouble.
When it comes to the business side of language, translators are constantly challenged by idioms. Not only do they have to understand the idiom they are translating but they are also required to find an equivalent idiom in the target language, as a literal translation of the source language idiom will make little or no sense, or its meaning can be grasped but the phrasing is culturally out of place. When translating from Finnish to English, this can require a lot of work and often a little creativity.
In many instances, an equivalent, non-literal idiom is directly available as the core concept remains the same in the two languages. For example, ”tehdä kärpäsestä härkänen” (literally ”to make a bull from a fly”) means to make a big deal out of something small, and is easily translated to ”make a mountain out of a mole hill”. Some idioms, however, don’t have a corresponding substitute and are uniquely Finnish, such as ”viedä saunan taakse”.
Here are ten Finnish idioms that might cause more than a little trouble when translating into English.
Juosta pää kolmantena jalkana = fast, frantic (literal translation: run with the head as a third leg)
Olla kaikki muumit laaksossa = crazy, not sane (literal translation: (are) all the moomins in the valley)
Viedä saunan taakse = punish, administer something unpleasant (literal translation: take behind the sauna)
Tehdä kärpäsestä härkänen = make a big deal out of something small, trivial (literal translation: to make an ox out of a fly)
Lusikka jopa sopassa = be involved in many things (literal translation: a spoon in every soup)
Loistaa kuin Naantalin aurinko = smile happily (literal translation: shine like the sun in Naantali)
On vintti pimeänä = not in one’s right mind (literal translation: it’s dark in the attic)
Sopia kuin hajuvesi lihapullaan = not suitable (literal translation: like perfume on a meatball)
Ampua tykillä kärpäsiä = overreact to something (literal translation: to shoot flies with a canon)
Paistaa se päivä risukasaankin = everyone has some luck sometimes (literal translation: the sun will even shine on a pile of brushwood)