Translating some phrases from English into Cree can have unexpected results, especially idioms. What makes English idioms so dangerous to translate? By definition, idioms are phrases that come to mean something different than the words do on their own. In other words, English idioms are phases that don’t even mean what they look like they mean in English!
Most languages have idioms of some kind: phrases that come to have an extra layer of meaning because of how they’re used from day to day. But translators always need to handle them with care, remembering that the extra layer of meaning doesn’t necessarily carry over.
This is one of the unmarked hazards of looking up words in the dictionary one at a time and stringing them together (without checking that they mean what you think they mean). As usual, Solomon Ratt has some good advice. In this case, it’s a warning sign that says mahti êkâwiya : Please don’t!
Here are a few English idioms that just don’t make the leap to Cree – In this case, just for fun, we’re including audio so you can laugh, but mahti êkâwiya! Please don’t use them in real conversation!
Hang loose (as an idiom) usually means “relax” – though the English words on their own might refer to some object that is dangling just like panahk-akocini in Cree,
Chill (as an idiom) also usually means “relax” – though the English word on its own means to make something cold. In Cree, tahkaci is a command to get a cold, or to get sick from being cold. Not very relaxing – and it doesn’t even make sense to command someone to do this!
Let’s get lit (as an idiom) it usually means “let’s get intoxicated” – though the English words on their own suggest setting something on fire, pretty much like saskahosotân does in Cree.
“Let’s hang out” (as an idiom) usually means we want to keep company with someone. The English words on their own remind us of hanging out the laundry or a dog in a car window. This one is especially dangerous in Cree, where wathawî-akocinitân actually means ‘Let’s let our penises hang out of our pants.’
Enjoy a laugh at these
Here are a few more common English idioms that just sound silly in Cree because they are so literal. Bur remember: mahti êkâwiya : Please don’t. Please don’t use them in real life: Sol has provided audio just for fun.
Hit the books – pakamaha masinahikana!
Hit the sack – pakamaha maskimot!
(he gets) Stabbed in the back – ospiskwanihk ê-tahkamiht
Have a seat – ayâ apiwin!
Twist your arm – pîmina kispiton!
Lose your touch – wanihtâ kisâminikan.
Pitch in – cîstawskosîwahikî (pitch hay)
A walk in the park – î-pimohtâniwik pârkihk
A piece of cake – pahki wîhkihkasikan
Go cold turkey – itohtî kâ-kawcit misihthîw
Small potatoes – apisâsinwa napatâkwa or napatākosa
Bigger fish to fry – nawac misikitiwak kinosîwak kita-sâsâpiskisohcik
Water under the bridge – nipiy sîpâ âsokanihk
Rock star – asiniy acâhkos
I get it – ninâtîn!
Idioms evolve through how the words are used (in any language)
Of course, Cree speakers are also highly creative: they also create idioms in Cree that might have different meanings in different dialects, or communities. Remember the laughs about Kraft Mayochup? In literal Cree, it sounds like it’s made up of two parts:
In many western Cree communities, it still just means something literal, like “shitty eye.” (At least, it did until the story about the funny translation began to spread). It became an idiom around Moose Factory and Attawapiskat, by taking a literal translation three steps farther:
First, they sometimes extend the use the -câp part (which literally means “eye”) to mean “face” (according to Kepin Brousseau). Consider the difference in English “looking him right in the eye” and “looking him right in the face.” They both mean about the same thing (because they’re idioms).
Their second step borrowed the English idiom “shitfaced” (meaning extremely drunk), and translates it into Cree (using that extended meaning of -câp for “face”). Which is exactly what this post is warning you to be careful about! Kepin Brousseau says in SRO, the expression would be written meyiwicâp – but it sounds just like Mayochup.
Step three solidified its idiom status: speakers who began to use it (probably jokingly) began to use it again and again (as a metaphor for drunk). Eight months after that news story unleashed all that laughter, the idiomatic meaning is recognized throughout much of Cree country.
Idioms in other languages
The problem isn’t limited to Cree and English. Here are a few examples extracted from a Ted Talk on idioms from various European languages that professional translators have found virtually impossible to translate into English.
German idiom: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.
Literal translation: “I only understand the train station.”
What it means: “I don’t understand a thing about what that person is saying.’”
Swedish idiom: Att glida in på en räkmacka
Literal translation: “To slide in on a shrimp sandwich.”
What it means: “It refers to somebody who didn’t have to work to get where they are.”
Portuguese idiom: Pagar o pato
Literal translation: “Pay the duck.”
What it means: “To take the blame for something you did not do.”