It Doesn’t Break Three Legs to a Duck

If you hire an amateur “translator” who speaks French like a Spanish cow, your audience could feel like a hen that has found a knife, leaving you in the cabbages while the crook runs away in the English fashion.


Idioms make languages colourful and interesting. When using them, we don’t think about what they say literally but non-native speakers hearing them for the first time will often find them mind-boggling, if not hilarious. Expressions usually make little sense if taken literally and are therefore a good example of why literal or machine translation does not work. Here are a few samples of French sayings to illustrate.

French: Ça ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard
Literal translation: It doesn’t break three legs to a duck
Meaning: That’s nothing to write home about

French: Filer à l’anglaise
Literal translation: To run away in the English fashion
Meaning: To take French leave

French: Avoir l’air d’une poule qui a trouvé un couteau
Literal translation: To look like a hen that has found a knife
Meaning: To look puzzled

French: Etre dans les choux
Literal translation: To be in the cabbages
Meaning: To be in a difficult / embarrassing situation

French: Vendre la mèche
Literal translation: To sell the wick
Meaning: To let the cat out of the bag

French: Une histoire à dormir debout
Literal translation: A story to sleep standing up
Meaning: A cock-and-bull story

French: Parler (allemand) comme une vache espagnole
Literal translation: To speak (German) like a Spanish cow
Meaning: To speak very poor to no (German)

Spanish cowPhoto:

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