Collocations, idioms, proverbs and set phrases across languages

Project overview

When you learn a new language you also learn new concepts, forms of syntax and new ways of thinking. It’s amazing to realize that even seemingly simple phrases and questions such as “What’s your name?” and “I’m cold” are expressed with different structures and concepts in different languages. In German the question “What’s your name?” is translated as “Wie heißt du?”.

Now, if we compare the two structures we will find there are quite a number of differences here. In English we use the question word ‘what’ while in German we use ‘wie’ which is a direct translation of the English question word ‘how’.

The English question uses the noun ‘name’ and a form of the ‘be’ verb. In the German version we use the verb ‘heißen’ which doesn’t have a direct translation in English because the English language doesn’t have the concept expressed by heißen.

If we now compare the Russian translation of “What’s your name?” we’ll find that Russian speakers use a third concept. Translated literally the Russian question is “What do they call you?” - - Как тебя зовут? So, in Russian we use the question как which is a direct translation of ‘what’ and the accusative object pronoun ‘you’ (тебя).

In English we say “I’m cold” while in Russian it’s either Я замерз or мне холодно and in German we either say “Ich friere” or “Mir ist kalt”. So, even for the simple phrase “I’m cold” there are least four different ways of expressing pretty much the same idea.

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I pondered the same question a while ago while working on my thesis. I took on a project of comparing a few versions of “Alice in Wonderland” translated into English and targeted towards different audience. I counted language concepts used to express the same meaning, compared them. I was also comparing those translation with the Russian original. Back then it was fascinating. Not I laugh at this idea.

Language is a live creature. It’s develops constantly. What wasn’t the norm before is a norm now. People used to talk in a different way fifty years ago, yet nowadays our language is far from how it sounded and even looked fifty or sixty years ago.
Certain Eskimo tribes have 16 words to name “snow.” Every word will differ depending on the texture of the snow, etc. Why no German or Russian have these 16 words as well? Language is a social thing as well. What becomes a language norm is decided by a society. While it’s indeed fascinating to look at all the differences languages have to transmit the meaning, everything we can do is observe and wonder. Trying to count and mathematically calculate how languages translate is a fruitless endeavor.
While I am also passionate about the language systems, what is lost in translation, and many other language phenomena, I stay far from calculating why things work or don’t work across the languages.
Thank you for an interesting concept to consider!

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