Stuck in a rut?

Whenever I need some inspiration, it helps to step away from my desk and look at things from a different perspective. I get my best ideas when I am running or walking in the countryside, breathing the fresh air, stretching my legs and enjoying the view. As soon as I am outside, the synapses in my brain that were previously tired and uninspired seem to find a new spark. Suddenly I know the right solution for a tricky translation, the ultimate gift for a friend’s birthday, even a fresh idea for a blog post.

One day when I was running around the fields, I noticed that I was skipping between the two ruts in the path, because the one I was running in always seemed to be full of obstacles – long grass, muddy ground and rabbit holes. By contrast, the parallel track always looked much easier to navigate. Funnily enough, as soon as I hopped over to the other side, it turned out to be just as challenging to run on as the first one. I skipped between the two tracks for a while and started to think about it in a more figurative sense, thanks to the revived activity of the synapses, no doubt.

Sometimes it can be tempting to glance at how other people fare from the side and believe that they have it somewhat easier or that they are more successful, and you may find yourself thinking: I wish I could be ‘running in their rut’. But just imagine for a moment that you were – is it really that much easier? They may be better off, but perhaps there are areas of their life that are harder than in yours: a difficult relationship, a chronic illness or other worries that you are not aware of.

Just as I came to the conclusion that the other track was as tricky to navigate as the one I was running on, I realised what an illusion it is to think that someone else could have it easier. And just as I decided to choose one track and stick with it instead of hopping back and forth and expending even more energy, it dawned on me that it may be a good idea to concentrate on my path and do my best to tackle it instead of being distracted by the way other people tackle theirs.

That afternoon I could suddenly relate to the old adage that the grass is always greener on the other side, or as they say in German: the cherries in your neighbour’s garden are always sweeter (die Kirschen in Nachbars Garten schmecken immer süßer). Of course, it is not wrong to get some inspiration from the way other people go about their business. It does not mean, however, that they don’t have their own obstacles to overcome.

So, by all means, if you feel stuck in a rut, hop over and try out the other one. But don’t be too surprised if it turns out that the path you were on is just right and worth persevering. Maybe you just need to step outside and take a brisk walk to fire up your synapses.

What do you do when you need a little bit of inspiration? I’d love to hear where you get your best ideas!

An idiom a day …

I am fond of proverbs and idioms as they reveal so much about a culture and its people. Being a translator, I am particularly interested to see whether they can or cannot be translated, since it provides a glimpse into the differences and similarities of two cultures – in my case the English and the German. For some reason, I seem to have a particular affinity with idioms involving food. So here is another harvest of food-related expressions – and some of their roots.

Have you ever noticed that it is easier to share food with some people than it is with others? If someone is not easy to get along or deal with, you would say in German: you don’t want to eat cherries with him! (Mit dem ist nicht gut Kirschen essen.) This German saying goes back to the Middle Ages, when cherries were very expensive and only wealthy people could afford to eat them. If they noticed any uninvited, less well-off bystanders joining in the cherry-eating feast, they would humiliate and chase them away by spitting cherry stones at them. Charming.

At the other end of the price scale, we have food-related expressions on both sides of the Channel: something that is cheap as chips in English only costs an apple and an egg (‘n Appel und ‘n Ei) in German. Speaking of apples – someone or something that we treasure is the apple of my eye (mein Augapfel) in both languages too. This expression stems from an Old English text that describes the pupil of the eye as an apple because of its round shape and presumably also because both the fruit and good eyesight were highly valued. Oh, and the word ‘pupil’, which is of Latin origin, did not yet exist in the English language at the time.

One of my favourite English idioms is the nonchalant expression cool as a cucumber. You would get some funny looks, though, if you would try to use this literally translated into German – not so cool in Cologne. Staying with salad ingredients: if you don’t see what is right in front of you, the Germans would say that you have tomatoes in both eyes (Tomaten auf den Augen), whereas in English we would probably declare that person to be blind as a bat (which, to be fair, is on the menu in some places too). Apparently, the figurative tomatoes derive from the bloodshot red eyes of someone who is tired and therefore not able to see properly.

One of my favourite German expressions is the rather comical Rhabarberohren: someone straining his ear to listen to what someone else is saying, even if it is not intended for him, is growing ‘rhubarb ears’. In English we would rather say that someone’s ears are flapping, without any culinary connotation. I like the mental picture of the two combined.

It is only natural, I suppose, that food-related phrases are popular in both languages. Something as fundamental as food and drink will always be talked about and used for reference. Who knows what we will come up with next?

Do you have any favourite food-related idioms and expressions?

More pudding, please!

I am fond of proverbs and idioms as they can reveal so much about a culture and its people. Being a translator, I am particularly interested to see whether they can or cannot be translated, since it provides a glimpse into the differences and similarities of two cultures – in my case the English and the German. Here is another helping of wonderful idioms from both sides of the channel.

With the Christmas holidays and the festive season approaching fast, and following on from the pudding theme of my previous post, I couldn’t help thinking of some delicious food related idioms.

We consider an easy task or activity to be a piece of cake in English, but in German you would simply call it a Kinderspiel (child’s play). Culinary points for the English language here. On the other hand, if someone is really annoying, he or she steps on the biscuit in German (auf den Keks gehen), whereas in English we would say that this person is getting on our nerves (which also translates literally into the German auf die Nerven gehen). Scores on the culinary scale: 1–1.

If you have to do something you really don’t fancy doing, you are biting into a sour apple in German (in den sauren Apfel beißen), whereas in English you will have to bite the bullet. This expression stems from the days before anaesthetics were invented, when wounded soldiers were given a bullet to bite on whilst they were being operated on. Not so tasty. And while we take something with a pinch of salt in English when we feel that someone is exaggerating, Germans prefer not to consider it as cash (nicht für bare Münze nehmen). The comparison of someone’s word with a coin or a metal has a long tradition in German. The German proverb Reden ist Silber, Schweigen ist Gold directly translates into the English [speech is silver,] silence is golden. However, that’s a bit hard on the palate as well, so it looks like a 2–2 draw after all.

Moving on to a more heavenly subject, in English we are on cloud nine if we are really happy, whereas in German you settle for cloud number seven (auf Wolke sieben), which must be roughly in the same area, considering they are both in seventh heaven (im siebten Himmel).

On that note I wish you a high-spirited and very merry festive season!

If you have any favourites among the weird and wonderful idioms in English or German, please get in touch. I love to hear about them.

The proof is in the pudding

Wonderful proverbs: the excitement of finding cultural similarities when they translate and differences when they don’t.

I am fond of proverbs and idioms as they reveal so much about a culture and its people. Being a translator, I am particularly interested to see whether they can or cannot be translated, since it provides a glimpse into the differences and similarities of two cultures – in my case the English and the German.

One idiom I was surprised to find in both languages is to give up the ghost, which translates literally into the German phrase den Geist aufgeben. Looks like both cultures believe that there is a spirit in everyday things that throws in the towel when the object breaks down. To throw in the towel, by the way, is equally being used in the German language to admit defeat (das Handtuch werfen) and originates from boxing.

We use another saying – the proof of the pudding is in the eating (or in short: the proof is in the pudding) – to express that you should not judge a book by its cover (oops, another one!) or that you have to experience something before you know its true value. Both the pudding and the book are used metaphorically to illustrate the point.

The corresponding proverb in German, Probieren geht über Studieren, simply states: ‘to try is better than to study’. The same meaning is expressed in a different, explicit way. Could this mean that the Germans have a more practical and the English a rather poetic approach when it comes to appearances and true values? I guess the proof will be in the pudding.