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We asked, you delivered.

IN A RECENT QUESTION on our Facebook group, we asked the question, “What’s your favorite saying in a foreign language? (And, er, give us the translation please!),” and the responses were pretty intriguing.

Language is the foundation for our entire understanding of existence. When walking down the street, we don’t gather information about our surroundings in abstract, undefinable symbols, sniffing like a dog or collecting data with our tongue like a snake; we store the words in our memory, and likewise recall them–which is why when traveling, being surrounded by foreign words makes you feel like you’re on some awesome crazy pills. Even when I go to Philly and everyone calls sandwiches “hoagies,” I’m reminded that I’m a visitor, that this place and all these people were here way before me.

But that’s the beauty of our languages, that they’re all so different, with different personalities and textures and rhythms and gestures. My favorite expression in Spanish is No tengo ganas, which translated literally means “I don’t have any wins,” but really means “I don’t feel like it.” Hey, take out the trash! No tengo gaanaasss. Fine, do your homework! Pero no tengo gaaanaaassss. You get the idea.

Here are some highlights (at least of the ones that provided some translation and context!) for your translating pleasure:

Lala FofofoKiswahili, meaning, “Sleep as deeply as you would if you were dead.”

Wowowo – Pronounced “whoawhoawhoa”, it’s Kiswahili for “Big butt.”

De Madrid al cielo – A (probably central) Spanish saying meaning “From Madrid to heaven.” Once you’ve been to Madrid, the only place to top it is heaven.

Poco a poco, llena el coco! – In Spanish, meaning, “Little by little fills the coconut.” It relates how a person learns–the coconut being your brain!

Nakurmiik – The Inuktitut way of saying “Thanks!”

Goda ferdIcelandic for “Go with God” or “Good travels.”

BoItalian slang for “I don’t know.”

In vino veritas – A Latin phrase meaning “In wine there is the truth.”

Ti telas pedagimu? – In Greek, a really nice was to say “How are you?”

YallahArabic for “let’s go!” or “hurry up!”

Savi savi – In Moroccan Arabic, a way of telling crying and upset children that everything is okay.

CMC – It’s Spanish shorthand for LOL, meaning “casi me cago,” or, “I almost shit myself laughing.”

Ndakasimba kana makasimbawo – Zimbabwean Shona for “I am strong if you are strong.

Obras sona amores y no buenas razones – Another Spanish phrase that literally translated means “works of love and no good reasons,” or the equivalent of “actions speak louder than words.” Try saying it out loud–you’ll be hooked.

Allora – In Italian, this is a connective way of linking sentences and ideas–like “Okay, now…” or “So, then…”, but sounds much more beautiful.

La shokr, ala wajib – A North African Arabic way of saying “Don’t thank me, it was my duty.”

Poa kichizi kama ndizi – In Swahili this means “cool like a sweet banana.”

Ubuntu A great Zulu word meaning “I am because we are.”

Language Learning


About The Author

Jason Wire

Jason Wire graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2010 and spent the year after writing and teaching English in Spain. He's back in the states now, but doesn't know where. Follow him @wirejr.

  • Patricia Romero

    I do not know if it is a typo but the sentence in Spanish actually reads “Obras son amores y no buenas razones.” I used this saying to counteract my grandma’s “Quien bien te quiere, te hara llorar” (Who loves you best will make you cry.)

  • Sarah Stephens Baergen

    I wish I hadn’t missed that question. My favorite expression is a Japanese one.
    “Abura wo uru” means literally to “sell oil”, but it refers to people who chat around when they’re supposed to be working. In the old days of Japan, merchants who sold oil would talk while they did so.

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