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Review of the Month

This month we snack on noodles
but find them less than satisfying

From the sublime to the idiotic

Most translators will concede that idioms present a daunt­ing challenge. This comes as no great surprise when you remember that tropes frequently defy understanding even by native speakers, never mind when translated.

For this reason, self-confessed monoglot Jag Bhalla might have done better to have left the writing of this book to an experienced linguist.

While the author received a leg up in the form of illust­rat­ions by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits, he seemingly failed to get his manuscript proof-read by a linguist, judging by several inelegant English-language renderings. Another failing is that, all too often, one idiom is used to define another – which risks leaving some readers baffled.

However, in fairness, as Bhalla points out in his intro­duc­tion, this is not intended as a scholarly work and nor did he compile it as a guide for translators. So, while enlightened readers may occasionally find themselves grinding their teeth at the odd clumsy translation, neophytes and dabblers seem certain to find some informative and amusing content in this compilation of translated idioms from around the world.

Some of the exam­ples are delightfully evocative. For example, in Syria a miser is known as an ant-milker while his Italian counterpart would have ‘holes in his hands’. In India a busy person is said to have ‘no time to die’ while an overworked Italian has ‘too much meat on the fire’ and a Chilean working like a dog is said to be ‘peeling the garlic’.

The words idiom and idiot derive from the same Greek root (‘idios’) which perhaps explains why so many idioms seem idiotic.

Some idioms need no explanation, such as ‘when God wore short pants’. Their equivalents in other languages are often less obvious. The Chilean Spanish idiom for ‘a long time ago’ translates as ‘when dogs were tied with sausages’ while Iberian Spaniards favour ‘when snakes wore vests’.

Similar epithets crop up with differing meanings in various cultures. For example, a Japanese person with ‘itchy teeth’ is full of their own importance while in Russia the same obloquy is applied to gossips. Russia is also the source of the title, Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, which equates to ‘pulling your leg’.

No one can accuse Jag Bhalla of having written a book which we all absolutely must read before we kick the bucket (or swallow our birth certificates, as the French say). But it could usefully be left in a dentist’s waiting room for those seeking a distraction before they bite the bullet.

I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears and Other Intrig­uing Idioms from Around the World, by Jag Bhalla, is published by the National Geographic Society and is available at bookstores and through Amazon.com. ISBN: 978-1-4262-0530-9. Kindle version ISBN: 9781426204586.

Reviewer: Cliff Hutton

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In Syria a miser
is known as
an ant-milker
while his Italian
would be said
to suffer from
holes in his hands