A translator’s job is to communicate a message to a reader whose mother tongue isn’t the same as the original work. Sometimes this can be a literal word for word translation and other times different ways have to be used to get the meaning of the message across as clearly as possible. One of these ways is free translation or adaptation – the message is adapted and not translated literally.

This can be seen when translating idioms – the literal translation would often be ridiculous in another language and this is where a translator comes into his or her own.

Here are some examples from other languages which show what would happen if they were translated literally:


Foreign language Literal translation What it really means
Arrimar el ascua a su sardina (Spanish) To put the coals close to your own sardine To look after number one
Noyer le poisson (French) To drown the fish To cloud an issue
Comer peixe não puxa carroça (Portuguese) Eating fish doesn’t pull wagons Eating fish isn’t suitable if you want to be big and strong
Gesund wie ein Fisch im Wasser (German) As healthy as a fish in water As fit as a fiddle


There are, I am sure, many more fishy idioms in other languages, but either because we’re an island nation or maybe because English is my first language I think we have the most fishy idioms, here are a few I can think of ..


Idiom What it really means
He’s a big fish in a small pond He’s an important person in a small place
Looking blue/green/pale around the gills Looking sick
He’s a cold fish He’s unfriendly/doesn’t mix with others
Drinks like a fish Drinks alcohol to excess
A fine kettle of fish A mess
To fish for (something) To try and get information
Like a fish out of water Doesn’t fit in with surroundings
Fishy Questionable
To have other/bigger fish to try To have more important things to do/other opportunities
Packed in like sardines Packed in very tightly, very crowded
Plenty of other fish in the sea Plenty of other people to choose from


If you have any you’d like to share then please send me an email cherie@wordfishtranslations.com