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Categories: Culture
| On 2 years ago

10 Asian Sayings Which Will Bewilder You When Literally Translated To English

Travelling around the world comes with picking up a bit of foreign chatter here and there, and before you know it, you’ve mastered the most important question (“where’s the toilet?”) in dozens of languages.

While most phrases do make sense once you’ve deciphered them word-for-word, there’re some things which simply can’t be taken literally, or you’ll be left scratching your head in wonder for a long time.

It’s all good fun, so we’ve picked out 10 Asian sayings which had exactly that effect when we read them ourselves.

1. Japanese: “My Hand Is Coming Out Of My Throat”

喉から手が出る (nodo kara te ga deru)

One would wonder how the hand would get into the person’s throat in the first place. When translated though, it’s just an expression to describe the feeling when one desires something extremely badly.

That would sort of make sense, if we think of it as only being able to talk about what we want so we wish that our words could reach out and grab it… That’s if the freakiness of a limb emerging from our mouths doesn’t scare everyone off first.

2. Japanese: “To Boil, Then Drink Someone’s Fingernail Dirt”

爪の垢を煎じて飲む (tsume no aka wo senjite nomu)

We can’t imagine someone actually doing that to improve themselves, although that’s what the actual meaning comes eerily close to: to learn by following someone’s example.

We get it, being humble and taking up even the tiniest tips from an expert is a good way to learn but do people really have to go that far? Well, I guess no one will know whether it works if they don’t try it first.

3. Korean: “You Scratch An Itchy Place For Me”

가려운곳을긁어주다 (galyeoun gos-eul geulg-eo juda)

This is used to describe a person helping you without you requesting for it. Pretty whimsical way to express gratitude, if you ask us, but it’s very relatable, we’ll give it that much. After all, having a random itchy spot that can’t be reached is a big irritation.

How a person would magically know about an itch on your body is a mystery, so we’re glad that non-literal ways to use this phrase will prevent that awkward moment when you realise someone’s watching you closely enough to figure out where your mosquito bites are.

4. Korean: “Do Not Drink From The Kimchi Soup (Yet)”

김치국부터마시지말라 (gimchigugbuteo masiji malla)

Ah yes, the most stereotypical Korean food emerges in a legitimate proverb; in case you were wondering, we didn’t make it up.

The meaning is straightforward as it warns the listener not to get ahead of themselves, and is quite similar to the closest English equivalent, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”.

The Korean version originates from how kimchi soup is customarily eaten with rice, and should not be consumed on its own even if it is served first.

5. Vietnamese: “The Bridge Is Expected”

Cầu được ước thấy

This phrase roughly means “you get what you wish for”, a warning for people to reconsider what they think they want so it’s rather different from what a non-native speaker would expect if they’d taken it at face value.

A more well-known English way of saying this is, “be careful what you wish for, it might come true“. It’s kind of amazing how different cultures have their own ways of passing down the same advice throughout the generations – probably means that this is advice worth taking.

6. Thai: “Frogs Choose Boss”

กบเลือกนาย (kbleụ̄xknāy)

Alright, if we didn’t bold the explanation below and asked you to guess instead, could you have even gotten close to the real meaning of this one? We found that Thai sayings are one of the most unusual and comical of the lot so if you’re thinking about what to take up as your next foreign language, this one won’t be boring, to say the least.

Anyway, this phrase describes a scenario where waiting too long to decide causes the situation to worsen. When it does happen, remember to tell the listener, “I toad you so!”

7. Thai: “The Hen Can See The Snake’s Feet And The Snake Can See The Hen’s Breasts”

ไก่เห็นตีนงู งูเห็นนมไก่ (kị̀h̄ĕntīnngū ngūh̄ĕnnmkị̀)

After you get over the idea that snakes might have legs and hens could have breasts (we’re not talking about the kind you get at the chicken rice store), you can see the logic in why such unusual body parts were chosen for these animals.

Thai culture places a particular emphasis on feet and breasts being kept private so in this case, the real translation refers to two individuals knowing secrets about each other, which would explain the choice in animals and anatomy.

Now you know why we never get to see any feet on snakes; they were simply hiding them from us!

8. Tamil: “Can Donkeys Identify The Smell Of Camphor?”

கழுதைக்குத் தெரியுமா கற்பூர வாசனை? (kazhutaikkut theriyuma karpoora vaasanai?)

Camphor has been widely used to relieve pain, treat fungal infections, in massage oils, during religious ceremonies and more, so it’s no wonder that it would turn up in a common saying to be passed down.

Just like how a donkey, seen as a dimwitted animal, is unable to recognise an important substance like camphor, this rhetorical question is used in a situation where a person is not credible enough to judge a situation.

Well, it’s rather insulting to be called a donkey to start with, and topped-off with doubts about someone else’s expertise, we’d say this is a double insult delivered with class.

9. Chinese: “Fish Sink And Geese Fall From The Sky”

沉鱼落雁 (chén yú luò yàn)

The day that fish do stop swimming and geese cease flying would be a worrying day indeed. Strangely enough, what seems like a calamity is actually a melodramatic expression used to describe a woman’s beauty.

Perhaps it’s like calling something “groundbreaking” which wouldn’t be good literally either, yet is complimentary in meaning and makes anything sound awesome when used.

Next time you’d like to get to know a lady friend, this could very well be a nice ice-breaker, provided she doesn’t take it as an insult before you can explain.

10. Malay: “Like A Monkey That Has Eaten Spicy Shrimp Paste”

seperti kera kena belacan

Ooh, sambal belacan is one childhood condiment we won’t forget soon, whether we first tried it willingly, or were pranked by our older family members into tasting it. This time, we get to enjoy it in this Malay phrase which is used to depict a person who’s restless or skittish.

The English equivalent would be  “like a cat on hot bricks,” which would put the image of cats hopping from foot to foot alongside the picture of monkeys jumping around trying to remove the spicy sensation from their tongues.

Makes us wonder whether some unfortunate monkeys really tasted belacan when they stole food from kampungs in the past… that would be a memorable sight to behold.

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Languages tend to change a lot throughout the years and many things have gone so out of date that only grandparents can be heard using them nowadays. Nevertheless, it’s still entertaining to revisit some of these old idioms, proverbs and sayings and appreciate the culture which birthed them.

What are some of the strange things you heard in your native tongue as you grew up?


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Mai WenYi

Under the illusion that desserts don't go to the stomach, but to the heart. There's always room for cake.

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