Volume 40, No.3 - Fall 1994
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas, University of Rochester 
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1994 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


University of Rochester

In Lituanus 1/94 (Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 54-64) we briefly discussed some problems of the idioms—both in English and Lithuanian. Several readers of Lituanus expressed their wish to see some more discussion of these problems. As a matter of fact, one reader sent us a very short list of FIVE (American) English idioms asking us to give the best possible Lithuanian equivalents, or idioms, if such existed in Lithuanian. Here are these five idioms:

1. Boy oh boy!
2. Bright as a button.
3. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
4. To bring home the bacon.
5. To bum a hole in one's pocket.

Now, if we tried to translate these five idioms literally, or word for word, we would get the following:

1. Boy oh boy!— "Berniuk—ei—berniuk!'
2. Bright as a button — "Šviesus/gudrus kaip saga.'
3. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed — 'Žvalių akių ir papūsta uodega.'
4. To bring home the bacon — Parnešti namo lašinių/bekono.'
5. To bum a hole in one's pocket — 'Išdeginti skylę kišenėje.'

But not one of these five phrases in Lithuanian has the same meaning as that of the English phrases; furthermore, a native speaker of Lithuanian would never use such expressions. They are empty phrases in most cases, "un-Lithuanian." As a matter of fact, they remind me of the famous empty phrase used years ago, at the beginnings of generative/transformational grammar, namely, "Green ideas sleep furiously"...

In order to find closer equivalents in Lithuanian, one has to look for the semantic ranges, or semantic fields and their functional loads.

Now, for example, "Boy oh boy!" is used, primarily, as a sentence opener, to express either surprise, or to show astonishment, or to emphasize something. Or, sometimes, to show disappointment. In Lithuanian, depending on the preceding statement, and the situation, one could try to render "Boy, oh boy!" as follows:

/1/ Kad tave kur galas!
/2/ Po šimts pypkių!
/3/ Vai jergutėliau!!
/4/ Kas gi čia dabar?
/5/ Kas gi čia per velnias?!

One would have to write almost a thesis on the various nuances of all the possibilities here.

2. Bright as a button:

/1/ Gudrus kaip velnias.
/2/ Sukasi kaip vijurkas.
/3/ Gudri kaip lapė.
/4/ Smarki kaip vėjas.
/5/ Sukasi kaip ant vienos kojos.

In terms of real close equivalency, neither one of the suggested five phrases of Lithuanian are really very close to the idiomatic meaning of the English idiom. The English idiom, "Bright as a button" conjures up an image of something polished, smart, pretty and very intelligent, really smart. In case of translating from English into Lithuanian, one would have to consider the underlying circumstances, the text, the situation and all the implications.

3. Bright-eyed and busy-tailed:

/1/ Pasiryžęs kalnus nuversti. 
/2/ Einąs per visas kliūtis.
/3/ Energija liejasi per kraštus.
/4/ Pramušta galva /kam nors/.
/5/ Negali vietoje nustygti.

Here, # /1/ is really quite close to the core of the English idiom, literally, # /1/ means "Determined to topple the mountains." # /3/ is quite close, too, literally meaning "Energy is pouring over the rim." # /2/ literally means "Going through all the obstacles." The other two phrases are Lithuanian idioms in their own right meaning someone totally dedicated to achieving a goal.

4. To bring home the bacon.

If one translates this idiom into Lithuanian literally, one gets verbatim the following: "Parnešti namo lašinių/bekono." And it only means that, i.e., to carry home some slab-bacon. And nothing else. This idiom, in English, must have originated in some concrete setting when indeed, some workers, or laborers may have been given real bacon instead of money. In Lithuania, until the middle of this century, more than 70 percent of the people lived in rural hamlets and villages, and they produced their own bacon. Therefore, 'bacon,' in Lithuanian cannot be used to express "having a job; bringing home wages,' etc.

As a consequence, quite a different phrase should be found in Lithuanian. We could suggest trying the usual five such phrases:

/1/ Užsidirbti pinigų. (Lit.: "To earn money.")
/2/ Turėti nuolatinį darbą. (Lit.: "To have a permanent job.")
/3/ Savo darbu išmaitinti šeimą. (Lit.: "To feed one's family with a job.")
/4/ Turėti pragyvenimą. (Lit.: "To have sustenance.")
/5/ Turėti iš ko gyvcnti. (Lit.: "To have enough means to live.")

In each case, one would have to select either one of the five phrases given above, or look for some other equivalent.

5. To burn a hole in one's pocket

No idea of "burning" could be used in Lithuanian for this idiom. Rather, perhaps the psychological feeling of some restlessness or some similar mood. As usual, we shall list again FIVE possibilities in Lithuanian, giving their literal meaning in parentheses:

/1/ Turi kelis centus kišenėje ir nerimsta. ("Has a few cents in the pocket and is restless.")
/2/ Pinigai jam kišenę drasko. ("Money is tearing his pocket.")
/3/ Pinigai nesilaiko kišenėje. ("Money does not stay in the pocket.")
/4/ Pinigai yra labai slidūs. ("Money is very slippery.")
/5/ Pinigai jam/jai slysta pro pirštus. ("Money is slipping through his/her fingers.")

As I have mentioned above, the historical, cultural, educational, religious and literary traditions are usually quite different from one language to another. Therefore, some idioms are very specific, and only some approximation may be found in another language.

Just one simple example. Take the English idiom dirt cheap. It must be the expression of city and town dwellers because in rural villages nobody buys dirt. In Lithuanian, the really good equivalent of dirt cheap is pigiau grybų which literally means "cheaper than mushrooms." In the olden times, one has to assume mushrooms were very cheap in mostly rural Lithuania. You could gather the mushrooms in all the forests, woods, and copses. There were, at that time, no commercially grown mushrooms in Lithuania.

Let us now take a simple Lithuanian idiom referring to money: pinigų kaip šieno, literally meaning "Money like hay." Clearly, this reference to 'hay' can come only from rural setting where 'hay' was always considered plentiful—on the meadows, and in the bam for winter.

On the other hand, in English, we find the idiom such as He has money to burn. Quite a different idea of life and riches.

It happens quite often that, where one language has a specific idiom, another language may not have any idiom of the same meaning at all. For example, there are no Lithuanian equivalents to express the various American English idioms based on such specific references like baseball, (American) football, English cricket, or the idioms based on American Indian culture. Or some very peculiar real event. For example, there is now a difference between American English "moonlight" ('light of the moon") and "moonshine" ('illegally brewed whisky, booze.') Here, of course, translating these American English expressions into another language, one has to search for some specific translations, approximation, even some explanation.

That is the reason why there cannot be a perfect translation, only various grades of approximation. A good example is the fact that there are now more than 53 different translations of Goethe's Faust into English and not one of them is considered perfect.