Last month we enjoyed another incredible edition of the Olympic Games, with athletes from across the world competing in an ever-expanding range of different disciplines. As a keen Padel enthusiast – a relatively new sport that has been taking the world by storm, and which will hopefully be an Olympic sport in 2032! – the games got me thinking about how each language and culture has its own relationship with the world of sport, and how things are always changing on that front.

For us in the localisation industry, this means a whole tranche of fun and useful sports-related idioms that get used on a daily basis, with some falling out of use as new ones come into existence. When translating across languages and cultures, it can be tricky to find an idiom in the target language that perfectly encapsulates the nuances and meaning of the original expression. And so with that in mind, I thought that I would dedicate this month’s article to some of Europe’s thorniest sports idioms – a veritable Olympics of athletic expressions and sayings!

An own goal (självmål)

According to researchers at the University of Gothenburg, football metaphors have been growing increasingly common in the Swedish language, and indeed, this is a phenomenon that most of us in Europe can recognise. Both on and off the pitch, you will hear people use terms like going offside, being on the ball or getting red-carded. The act of scoring an own goal, in particular, is one that has become very common both in Swedish and in English, as well as many other languages, and typically means an action that is self-defeating, or which gives an advantage to an opponent.

In football-obsessed Europe, these idioms are not usually a problem to translate, however they may require careful consideration when translating into English. That is because, while the UK may be the self-proclaimed home of football, the sport is much less popular in the US ,where it is known as soccer. Certain metaphors may therefore need adapting when the intended audience is located stateside, where people speak of Hail Marys and Monday-morning quarterbacks rather than penalty shoot-outs or golden goals.

The round thing must go into the square thing (Das Runde muss ins Eckige)

And speaking of football, here’s a fun one from Germany. This expression is originally a quote from the well-known German footballer and manager Josef ‘Sepp’ Herberger, as he wittily boils the sports down into the simplest of terms. German football fans have a great deal of affection for this quote; it can even be seen on T-shirts sold during football seasons. Off the pitch, it is used humorously to remind others that it is ultimately the end goal that matters. No matter what techniques and strategies we use along the way, there is one simple objective in mind – the ball needs to go into the net.

Translating this one can be tricky, not least because it is laden with cultural reference and connotations that are instantly recognisable to German readers. Finding an adequate translation takes a great deal of lateral thinking and a good knowledge of sports idioms in the target language – but it most certainly can be done!

To shoot the pigeon (At skyde papegøjen)

Although many people don’t realise it, a phrase in my native Danish that has been around for quite some time – literally to shoot the parrot – actually has a sporting origin. The expression means to get very lucky and is used in all sorts of contexts to highlight the fact that somebody has really had good fortune on their side. The expression stems from the shooting, and more specifically, to the sport of shooting wooden bird figurines which was popular in 13th century France. The parrot was the most coveted of all the targets, and so shooting the parrot meant striking it lucky.

Although there are equivalent expressions in other languages, this phrase has nonetheless caused confusion in the past. When the Danish political drama Borgen hit UK screens, for example, some viewers were confused by all this talk of shooting parrots in Denmark, after the phrase was translated literally in the subtitles. Moreover, alternative expressions may lack the exotic imagery of a colourful bird meeting its untimely end, and the humour that accompanies an expression now long detached from its original context.

The ball is on your roof! (La pelota está en tu tejado)

Many languages have a literal version of the common English expression “the ball is in your court” and Spanish is no exception, with the slight twist that instead of referencing a court, the Spanish version puts the ball on a roof. While the meaning is more or less the same, the imagery is different, with the Spanish version conjuring up a slightly more stalled version of events, where one party literally needs to climb up onto their roof and retrieve the ball.

Again, given the many versions of this phrase that exist in different languages, this is not one of the more challenging idioms to translate – but care is nonetheless needed when using automated solutions, for example. Translating this phrase literally might raise a few eyebrows, and this confusion could interfere with the message being conveyed.

Against the wall (contrapared)

Sticking with Spanish, one sport that has introduced a lot of Spanish expressions to the English-speaking world is my beloved Padel. The game was first invented in Mexico in the late 60s, and in recent years it has become enormously popular in Spain, slowly spreading to other countries in Europe. Even in English, a lot of the terminology used is Spanish, such as the terms bandeja and globo, which describe advanced shots used in the support.

One term from the world of padel that is also loaded with metaphorical potential is contrapared. This is where the player hits the ball off the back wall in their court, usually as a defensive tactic, because it is hard for them to send the ball back over the other side. Off court, this expression could be used to refer to a defensive tactic that repositions the subject or buys them some more time.

Care must be exercised when translating this phrase, as “against the wall” has different figurative meanings in various languages. In Swedish, it means to be put into a tough spot, while in English it typically refers to the firing squad – a mix-up which landed Greta Thunberg in hot water a few years ago.

And the gold goes to …

For me, it has to be contrapared, simply because I am an avid admirer of all things padel. But which one was your favourite? And what other sports-related idioms do you have in your language that might pose a challenge in translation? Be sure to let us know here!

In the meantime, if you have any expressive or creative texts that you need translating, whether they stem from the world of sport or not, be sure to reach out to learn more about how we can help. We promise to hit a homerun with your text, really knocking it out of the park, and getting it over the finish line on time!

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