Deceiving wolves and humiliated people

Some written works influence language more than others. While Shakespearean phrases permeate the English language, Goethe’s creations provide ample source material for German idioms (see tricky questions). One major source both German and English have in common is the Bible. Then there are the various fairy tales, which sometimes overlap. Other times, sources become conflated. Let’s take the English phrase “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” and its German equivalent “der Wolf im Schafspelz.” According to the New Testament, Jesus warns the people against false prophets who appear in sheep’s clothing, but turn out to be ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15). Then the brothers Grimm gave the wolf in sheep’s clothing a fairy tale treatment, from which the German language picked up another saying:

Kreide fressen (literally: to feed on chalk)

It derives from the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, The Wolf and the seven young goats, which arguably belongs to the lesser known tales. In this story, the mother goat has to leave her seven young kids alone at home for a few hours. As she goes she warns them to keep doors and windows shut, so they are safe from the big bad wolf. To make sure she gets back in upon her return, they are to recognize her by her white feet and soft voice. The clever wolf, however, seizes the opportunity and pretends to be her by whitening one of his paws with flour and eating some chalk to soften his voice. The young goats are deceived, let them in, and six get eaten. The seventh one lives to tell the tale and so –this being a fairy tale – the goats are eventually saved while the wolf falls into a deep well and drowns.

If Germans say that someone is feeding on chalk, they point to that person’s sudden or surprising change of tone from hostile to mild and peaceful. Because the idiom is irrevocably associated with the fairy tale and the unsavory fate of the young goats, the idiom always has a negative connotation. You don’t believe that person and expect her to show her true colors as soon as she has achieved her goal.

Not surprisingly, many translations link the saying to hypocrisy, but it doesn’t quite fit. Of course, hypocrites pretend to be better, nobler or more sincere than they truly are. Yet, hypocrisy is invariably connected to moral or religious beliefs: hypocrites secure their standing in society by dissimulating their real inclinations. Often enough, they even criticize others about actions or thoughts that they themselves engage in. The wolf, on the other hand, does not pretend to be better than he is to fit in: he simply uses a temporary disguise as a means to an end, namely to feed on the goats. Similarly, a person who eats chalk tries to temporarily appear harmless or approachable only in order to get something.

With this in mind, it also becomes obvious that “Kreide fressen” cannot be translated with the English idiom “to eat humble pie” as the latter goes into the opposite direction: Someone who eats humble pie knows he has been wrong, but now needs an extra serving of humility to admit it.

To eat humble pie” rather corresponds to the German saying “zu Kreuze kriechen” (literally: to crawl towards the Cross), an idiom that references the medieval custom of Christian sinners to show their repentance by crawling on their knees toward the Cross. Both the English and the German saying imply the person’s initial resistance to admit her error, which makes it so humiliating for her to finally ask for forgiveness.

Of tricky questions and questions to trick you

The English language boasts a wide range of idioms taken from literary sources, particularly Shakespeare. Similarly, the German language includes a vast amount of phrases taken from the likes of Goethe. In contrast to idioms derived from customs, which frequently have an equivalent in the other language, such common citations typically stand on their own. Hence, they often resist translation and must instead be rewritten. Let’s take this one:

jemandem die Gretchenfrage stellen (literally: to put little Grete’s question to someone)

Gretchen is a central character in Goethe’s tragedy Faust. A young girl from a humble background, deeply religious and innocent, she is the opposite of the eponymous scientist, who is much older than her and renowned, but also disillusioned by the world and his studies. Having made a deal with the devil, Faust enlists the latter’s help to seduce the girl and make her his mistress, which then leads to tragedy. In one of the key scenes, Gretchen asks Faust: “Now say, what is your way about religion, pray?” Faust tries to evade the question, but Gretchen gathers from his unwillingness to give a straight answer that he is not a Christian.

Since then, “Gretchenfrage” stands for a particular type of question by which you try to find out about someone’s attitude toward religion, morality, politics or any topic which is of great importance, which may even include football (we are talking about Germany after all…). Notably, the question always assumes that the person asked does not really want to answer it. Hence it is always blunt, so that avoiding an answer inevitably gives away the truth regardless. In fact, it typically mimics the structure used by Gretchen: „What is your way about…?“
If you need to translate the idiom into English, the best way is to rewrite it into a direct question, such as:

What is your attitude toward / your stance on / disposition to…?

Of course, you could copy the structure, but, lacking the context of Goethe’s tragedy, this will come across as too stilted.

Oftentimes, “Gretchenfrage” is confused with “Fangfrage” (literally: a question to catch you out). A “Fangfrage” does the exact opposite of a “Gretchenfrage”: Rather than being direct, it implies a wrong answer or an answer by which you will contradict yourself.
“Fangfrage” is also quite difficult to translate: Its concept is best captured in the American term “gotcha-question”. Its most common translation, however, is “loaded question”, which may indeed be completely off mark. A loaded question is not so much charged with an answer, but with an assumption, typically a negative one. It tries to get a person to either contradict herself or to disclose something that is disadvantageous to her. A “Fangfrage” can fulfill the same purpose, but it can also be a comparatively harmless attempt to elicit information, to check if you pay attention or to test your reasoning. As such it is better translated as “trick question”. So you really have to be aware what the question is trying to achieve before you choose your translation or you may insinuate more than intended.

Of Pontius Pilate, pillars and posts, and getting the runaround

One of the stranger – and yet quite common – idioms in the German language is this one:

von Pontius zu Pilatus laufen (literally: to run from Pontius to Pilate)

Meaning: to run from one place to another on an errand or in search of something, but without success

This quaint expression finds particular popularity when one is chased from one agency to another to initiate a bureaucratic process of some sort. Its origin is indeed connected to the biblical Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judaea. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was brought before Pilate to be judged, but the prefect was unconvinced of his guilt and sent the Galilean prisoner to Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, whom he thought responsible. Herod Antipas also didn’t think that Jesus was guilty and sent him back to Pilate, who then bowed to public pressure and condemned him. In its modern usage, the term conveys that, despite your efforts, you are still at the same point where you started.  It can be translated with the English idiom: going from pillar to post In this case, the origin is obscure. There are a number of theories, of which I find none convincing enough to include here.Von Pontius to PilateLinguistically, however, the expression works the same way as the German one: Creating an illusory distance between first name Pontius and last name Pilate does not change the fact that we are still talking about one person only. Anything in-between is of no consequence. The English idiom achieves the same effect by using synonyms: “pillar” and “post” stand for the same item, i.e., a type of column. Any distance covered between the two does not get you any further. Thus the artificially created space in both idioms references the ineffectiveness of moving from one place to another.Von Pontius zu Pilatus laufen” cannot be translated as “to get the runaround”: Although this expression also conveys that you are given wrong information or false excuses, that your question is evaded, or that your request is unnecessarily delayed, it refers to a mental action during which you remain stationary. In contrast, the German idiom refers to physically moving around.

Eine deutsche Erörterung des Themas gibt es hier.

Say it with a flower, but not in a roundabout way

Germans are not generally known for “beating about the bush” but rather tend to put things bluntly. And yet we know that it’s not always clever to criticize someone openly, especially if the receiving person is someone you don’t want to offend. This is when we choose the following approach:

durch die Blume sagen (literally: to say through a flower)

Meaning: to voice criticism in a diplomatic, friendly or polite way

A popular, although mistaken, explanation locates its origin in the language of flowers as it was used during the 18th and 19th century in Victorian society. Brought from Istanbul to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, this language assigned particular statements to particular flowers, allowing young men and women communicate nonverbally at a time when societal rules made it very difficult for them to talk openly. This, however, is a Victorian custom, which never quite made it to Germany. Rather the idiom derives from a different kind of flower language which traces back to the Middle Ages and courtly society. When a nobleman courted a noblewoman and she was not interested, she would give him an everlasting flower to let him know this. Thus the spurned lover could withdraw before experiencing a more humiliating rejection.Origin of German idiom "durch die Blume sprechen"

Durch die Blume sagen” almost always refers to some kind of criticism or rejection and requires striking the right tone of voice. There is no corresponding English counterpart, so the best way to translate it is by describing it. The common translation, “to say something in a roundabout way,” is an approximation, which, I think, falls short. It’s true that, like the German expression, it stands for an indirect approach which keeps the main point vague. Unlike the German expression, however, roundabout speech suggests being overly complicated or wordy whereas saying something “durch die Blume” can be very direct and succinct. Its main characteristic is that it puts the negative aspect into friendly, polite or diplomatic words.

For example, your actor friend invites you to the premiere of his new play. You hate it, but don’t want to offend him. So you could say: “That certainly was an unusual interpretation of the play. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.”

Fun fact: If your actor friend understands the criticism, he could simply respond: “Danke für die Blumen!” (Thank you for the flowers!)

The opposite of “durch die Blume sagen” is “etwas unverblümt sagen” (literally: to say something without flowers)

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Battling swinehounds and weaker selfs

In Germany, when you talk about sports in the sense of doing more of it, you will almost inevitably come across the following expression:

seinen inneren Schweinehund überwinden (literally: to overcome your inner swinehound)

Meaning: to make yourself do something that you really don’t want to do

“Swinehound” was the collective term for dogs which were specifically used in boar hunts because of their particular resilience and tenacity. They packed the boar and held on to it to slow it down or hold it in place until the hunters arrived. The idiom points to this tenacity: The “inner swinehound” stands for your bad habits, which are as difficult to break as it is for a boar to escape. The idiom is generally used in connection with doing things that would be better for you (as it would be better for the boar to free itself from the hounds…). As such it always implies the need for more self-discipline.

The most fitting English translation would be:

to overcome/beat/conquer your weaker self

as it conveys the same need for self-discipline.

The common translation “fighting your inner demons” goes into a different direction as inner demons are associated with dark or negative emotions or memories, not bad habits.

I have also seen it translated as “overcoming/resisting your inner temptations,” but this is a rather awkward construction. For one, temptation itself is already an inner urge or desire, so the adjective “inner” seems superfluous. Also, the expression only works if you qualify what the temptation actually is. So yes, you could say, “I have to resist the temptation of being lazy/ eating chocolate” which also conveys the need of being more self-disciplined, but the German idiom does not require this kind of qualification.Schweinehund - origin and translation(Eine deutsche Erörterung des Themas befindet sich hier)

Beating about bushes to fish for information

To continue my exploration of German and English idioms and their translations, I have chosen an idiom that exists in similar form in both languages:

auf den Busch klopfen (literally: to beat on the bush)

It is no doubt tempting to translate it with the English idiom “to beat around/about the bushes,” but its meaning corresponds to a completely different English idiom: fishing for information.

Beating about the bushes and German translation

The origin of both “auf den Busch klopfen” and “to beat around the bushes” is the same and can be traced back to hunting. Before the actual hunt started, assistants were sent out to beat around the bushes to scare out any animals and birds hiding in there. But the surviving metaphorical meanings went into two different directions: The German expression emphasizes the beating’s function of finding out whether there is any game hiding in the bushes. The English expression points to the beating as a preparatory action. It was a lot of to-do before the main event, the hunt, started. From this derives the meaning: to delay or avoid talking about an issue at hand

The German idiom for “beating about the bushes” would be: um den heißen Brei herumreden (literally: to talk around the hot mash).

(Eine deutsche Erörterung des Themas befindet sich hier)

Talking about oxen and dying ducks in a thunderstorm

A tricky challenge for every translator is how to deal with idioms. If you translate them verbatim, they will probably make no sense in the target language and if you choose a neutral expression, it may change the style or the atmosphere the original text seeks to convey. Regardless of the difficulties idioms present, however, they are also any language’s treasure trove because they tell you so much about the people, their ways of thinking and their ways of life.

Let’s take the following German expression:

Dastehen wie der Ochse vor dem Berg / wie die Kuh vor dem (neuen) Scheunentor  (literally: to stand there like an ox before a mountain / like a cow before the (new) barn door)

Meaning: you are at a complete loss                    

When oxen and cows are faced with an obstacle in their way (or even the new appearance of an old obstacle, such as a new door), they apparently don’t know what to do and simply stop before it.

I have seen it translated as “like a (dying) duck in a thunderstorm,” but that does not quite express the same thing. The “duck in a thunderstorm” conveys a sense of being hopeless, crestfallen, or dejected. While it implies helplessness like the German expression, the mood is entirely different: The ox or cow is unperturbed, not miserable. It simply waits for guidance.

The English expression is derived from a folk belief, which held that the noise of thunder particularly affected ducks, so that one had to protect the eggs from the sound or no ducklings would hatch. By the same token, it was thought that hatched ducklings could easily die during a thunderstorm. Because their deaths was preceded by much eye-rolling, which gave them a somewhat surprised look, the expression initially described a stunned or startled expression. Yet, over time, the meaning changed. Today, looking “like a duck in a thunderstorm” stands for being forlorn or sorry for oneself.

(Cf.: Minard, Antone. Western Folklore, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter 2010, found here)

(Eine deutsche Erörterung des Themas befindet sich hier)