Hilariously Bad Translations of Foreign Words
Learning a foreign language is difficult. But it also holds many pleasures.
Take, for instance, all the words in other languages that, when translated literally, are both totally accurate and completely delightful. German is particularly well known for this — with words like refrigerator that translates to “the cool cupboard,” porcupine translates to “spike pig” and turkey to “threatening chicken." But many other languages hold similar delights.
Here, we’re sharing foreign words and idioms with our favorite hilariously bad translations. After all, language is a funny thing.
"Slug" in German Is "Naked Snail"
The German language is known for the way it stacks nouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives together to create long and descriptive nouns. When it comes to the naming of animals, this leads to some particularly amusing translations.
Take, for example, the German word for slug, a combination of nackt ("naked") and schnecke ("snail"). Because, it's true, a slug is basically a snail in the nude.
*Unless otherwise linked, translations have been sourced via the online dictionary bab.la, a product of Oxford University Press.
"Manatee" in German Is "Sea Pig"
Once again, Germany’s hyper-literal way of naming animals delights.
In this case, the stacked words are see for "sea" and schwein for "pig."
A seal, meanwhile, is a "sea dog."
"Skunk" in German Is "Stink Animal"
Why yes, a skunk is an animal that stinks. Well played again, Germany.
Other animals described by their characteristics include a sloth ("lazy animal"), platypus ("beak animal") and mule ("mouth animal").
"Turtle" in Dutch Is "Shield Toad"
And here we have the Dutch getting in on the wonderful trend of literal animal names.
Does a a turtle look like a toad with a shield? You bet.
"Ambulance" in German Is "Sick People's Car"
Outside the realm of naming animals, you’ll find more wonderful literal translations in the German language. Not feeling well while in the country? Hop in the sick people’s car!
"Bagpipes" in German Is "Yodel Sack"
How fun is the word “dudelsack”?! In German, the word for bagpipes translates to “yodel sack,” because it’s really just a sack that makes yodeling sounds.
And yes, this means that if you’re ever at a Scottish event where this woodwind instrument is being played, it’s okay to start saying dudelsack to everyone.
"Kangaroo" in Vietnamese Is "Rat Pocket"
German and Dutch aren't the only languages to have fun with descriptive animal names. In Vietnam, a kangaroo is a chuot ("rat") túi ("pocket").
We wonder if the kangaroo would take offense to being described as a giant rat with a pocket...
"Stapler" in Afrikaans Is "Paper Vampire"
Stapler is a weird word to begin with — who came up with this bland name for a desk object that is anything but? Frankly, paper vampire makes far more sense. One little bite of paper with this object’s thin metal teeth, and game over!
"Sandwich" in Swedish Is "Butter Goose"
How did a word that translates to “butter goose” come to mean “sandwich” in the Swedish language?
Well, as it turns out, smörgas initially referred to pieces of butter that would float to the surface of milk being churned. These butter bits were spread on bread and topped with other ingredients to create sandwiches. Eventually, sandwiches themselves adopted the name. (That said, macka, the colloquial word for “sandwich,” is more commonly used in the country.)
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Sweden’s version of a buffet, a smörgåsbord, translates to "butter-goose table.” Naturally.
A Type of Pasta in Italian Is "Priest Strangler"
According to legend, this semi-twisted noodle got its name after a priest ate his pasta dish so quickly that he choked on it. Next time you order this meal, eat slowly or you’ll end up like the priest.
"Santa Claus" in Finnish Is "Christmas Goat"
Santa Claus has different names around the world. In Poland, he’s St. Nicholas. In Russia, he’s Grandfather Frost. In Norway, he’s Christmas Gnome. And in Finland, his name translates to Christmas Goat.
The name is likely derived from an old Finnish tradition in which people would dress as goats during the Christmas season. But we like the believe it’s because Santa is Christmas’ Greatest Of All Time. Mic drop.
"Computer" in Mandarin Chinese Is "Electric Brain"
Instead of inventing a new Chinese character to represent the computer, pre-existing characters were combined. This one honestly makes a ton of sense, and sounds really cool to boot.
"Mermaid" in Hungarian Is "Foam Girl"
A mermaid swims in the sea. A sea has sea foam. A mermaid is also female.
Therefore, mermaid = “foam girl.”
Hungary, you nailed it.
"Jeans" in Dutch Is "Nail Pants"
In the 1850s, a customer of Levi Strauss suggested adding copper rivets to jeans. Reportedly, this somehow evolved into Dutch people referring to jeans as “nail pants.”
The only question is why everyone isn’t doing the same.
A Type of White Wine in German Is "Beloved Lady Milk"
Liebfraumilch is a style of sweet German wine that was first cultivated by monks at a convent. So while “beloved lady milk” may seem like a reference to breast milk, it’s actually about the Virgin Mary.
Never heard of this kind of wine? You should be able to find it at your local liquor store.
"Sandwich" in Dutch Is "Butter Ham"
Boterham originally referred to a slice of buttered bread. This makes sense insofar as boter means “butter,” but etymologists are reportedly stumped on how the ham got in there.
In any case, these days boterham often refers to a sandwich, though Dutch people often say dubbele boterham to indicate that the dish includes two slices of bread.
"Peanut Butter" in Dutch Is "Peanut Cheese"
Technically, butter and cheese are both dairy products. So this Dutch word doesn’t stray too far from the English word. It’s just, we think, way more fun.
Peanut cheese and jelly sandwich, please!
"Not My Problem" in Polish Is "Not My Circus, Not My Monkey"
It's not just words that are far more interesting in other languages. Many cultures have entire idioms that translate in entertaining ways.
In Poland, for example, when you want to say something isn't your problem, you say a phrase that translates to “Not my circus, not my monkey.”
Silly — but also entirely logical!
"To Tick Someone Off" in Swedish Is "To Poop in a Blue Locker"
If you’re wondering where this incredible idiom came from, we can assure you there is an explanation.
According to one theory, you would only hide your most valuable items in a blue locker in Sweden, because blue is an expensive paint in the country. Therefore, pooping in a blue locker would really piss people off.
"Good Luck" in Italian Is "In the Mouth of the Wolf"
When sending someone off into a difficult situation, Italians say the equivalent of "in/into the mouth of the wolf!"
The recipient of the expression usually answers with crepi or crepi lupo — "May the wolf die!"
"There Aren't Many People At This Party" in Italian Is "There Are Four Cats"
This expression is used to state the obvious — there’s no one at this party, only cats. (We'd kind of be down for a cats-only party?!)
"Life's Not Meant to Be Easy" in Italian Is "Life's Not a Pony Farm"
Ain’t that the truth.
“People Do What They Want Without Supervision” in Dutch Is “When the Cats Leave the House, the Mice Dance on the Table”
This is basically a more descriptive and colorful version of “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” We like to think that, indeed, mice have entire dance parties when their feline foes leave the premises.
"Same-Sex Parents" in German Is "Rainbow Family"
I think we can all agree that “rainbow family” is way more interesting to say than “same-sex parents.”
As if we needed more proof that German is the best.