Polish idioms translated literally into English and how to use them

January 8, 2016

„I know this one!” I shouted really excited in my Portuguese class the other week. We were learning different idioms and the teacher asked what we think sem pés nem cabeça. It literally means without feet or a head and is used for something that doesn’t make much sense. I am from Poland and in Polish we would say something really similar in the same situation: nie ma rÄ…k ani nóg – it doesn’t have arms or legs.

Idioms are one of the main reasons why translation is so difficult. Often times, you can’t just translate them word for word, or you might end up with funny results. That’s why pure machine translation is at its worst when it comes to idioms and other translation skills that require are more nuanced understanding of language.

Most Polish idioms sound less familiar to a foreign speaker. In fact, some of them might sound straight out bizarre. But don’t let that stop you from using them whenever interacting with Poles. With my twenty-four years of experience in speaking Polish, I’m here to teach you some of them:

Siedzieć jak na tureckim kazaniu – To sit like in a Turkish sermon

This one is especially close to my heart, since I live in Portugal, but don’t speak Portuguese (yet!). My Portuguese workmates have been very understanding so far, and whenever I’m around they switch to English, but every now and then they get so caught up in the conversation that they forget to do so – and I sit there like I’m in a Turkish (or rather Portuguese) sermon. Although it fits perfectly with a situation like this – when you listen to people speaking in a foreign language – most of the time we use it to describe a situation when you listen to someone but can’t understand what they’re talking about. If I went to a lecture on quantum physics, I would sit there like in a Turkish sermon.

Zrobić kogoÅ› w konia – To turn someone into a horse

This is definitely one of my most favourite Polish idioms. You don’t have to use some kind of black magic power to do this. When you turn someone into a horse, you simply cheat or deliberately mislead that person. Turning someone into a ballon (zrobić kogoÅ› w balona), packing into a bottle (nabić w butelkÄ™) or leading someone into raspberries (wpuÅ›cić kogoÅ› w maliny) has the same effect.

Mieć muchy w nosie – To have flies up your nose

Having flies up your nose doesn’t sound like the most pleasant feeling. Naturally, it would make you feel annoyed. When someone is really irritated and sulky, a Polish person will most likely say Ma muchy w nosie!He has flies up his nose. On the other hand, when you have something up your nose or mieć coÅ› w nosie, it means that you don’t care about that thing at all.

Dzielić skórÄ™ na niedźwiedziu – To divide the skin on the bear

Let’s say I have this amazing startup idea. I can already see myself being next Mark Zuckerberg. I’ve reserved all of my Saturdays next year for swimming in piles of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. But what if no one wants to invest in my great idea?
In that case, I divided the skin on the bear – and I haven’t killed the bear yet. Don’t worry, I’m not planning on literally hunting any bears. We use this expression when someone gets prematurely excited about something that might not work out. Talking about skin, if you get out of your skin (wyjść ze skóry) trying to accomplish something – it means you’re trying really hard to do so. I’m a great example – I’m getting out of my skin to make sure all my tasks are done as good as possible here at Unbabel.

Dostać kota – To get a cat

We all know you’re not supposed to buy a cat in a bag (kupować kota w worku) but to get a cat sounds like a pleasant surprise (especially for me, a crazy cat lady). Don’t be fooled, in Poland you get a cat when something drives you crazy. I’m not a big fan of crowds, but this year I was quite busy and found myself in the middle of a huge shopping mall the day before Christmas, doing some very last minute gift shopping. Trying to get through the huge crowd of fellow last minute shoppers and being stuck in the endless queue to the cash register for ages caused me to get a cat – not the cute, furry one. Using another animal related idiom, I can say that afterwards I was feeling like a beaten dog (czuć siÄ™ jak zbity pies), which means that I was absolutely exhausted.

Nudne jak flaki z olejem – Dull as tripe in oil

Beef tripe stew (flaczki) is a traditional Polish dish. Eating tripe in oil seems like a real culinary adventure to me – the one that I’m not willing to partake in, yuck!
But we use this idiom whenever something is really boring. For example, the movie I saw last night was dull as tripe in oil, so I fell asleep in the middle of it (not telling what it was, that would be mean ;). At least I slept tastily – which for a change has nothing to do with food. To sleep tastily (smacznie spać) is to sleep very well.

Impressing your Polish friends with these phrases should be a small beer (maÅ‚e piwo) – and by this I mean that it should be really easy. You’re welcome!

If you’re not a native English speaker, let us know if any of these idiomatic expressions match the ones in your language. And if you want to effectively communicate with your customers (not only the Polish ones) in their native language, you can always use Unbabel.

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