Monday, February 17, 2014

The Things That Don't Translate: Persian Idioms Part 1

One day, I was speaking with an Afghan co-worker who is an instructor of Dari, the mutually intelligible Afghan variety of Persian. He mentioned that Dari was actually much easier to learn than Persian. I didn't understand why since it's essentially the same language. Because, he explained, what you teach in Dari is what you say. What you teach in Persian, is not always what you say. Persian uses a lot of idioms. He had a point. Hale shoma chetore? Khubi?, How are you? Are you well? Students learn to answer khubam, merci, I'm fine, thanks. But when Iranians answer, they say things like, ghorbāne shomā, salāmat bāshin, I'll sacrifice myself for you, may you be healthy. Iranians speak in poems. Iranians speak in proverbs. Iranians speak in idioms. It's no wonder we have so much trouble communicating with the U.S. 

I've written about different idioms before, either more extensively or as words of the day, but below is the first random selection of those that I find the funniest translated in English (many, many more to come in future posts!). For the Persian-speakers, try to guess what the Persian idiom is. For the Persian-learners, try to guess what on earth this phrase could possible mean. Answers below, but no cheating ;)

1. put it on the jug and drink the water 
2. my hand to your skirt
3. take your hand off my head
4. s/he's breaking hazelnuts with his/her tail
5. he put a hat on my head
6. he rubbed syrup on my head
7. like a "ghost" and "in the name of God"
8. dirt on your head
9. his bread is in oil
10. I grew horns
11. his father's grave
12. my father came out

Isn't Persian fun? Let's pick these phrases apart a little... (for you Persian learners, the Persian is in the written form; the transliteration is the spoken form.) 

Pottery in Lalejin 

1. بگذار در کوزه آبش را بخور 
bezār dare kuze ābesho bokhor, put it on the jug and drink the water 
(In fact, this was the example idiom my Afghan co-worker brought up.) This basically means that what you are saying is worthless. If you are apologizing to someone, and they just aren't having it, they may say 
bezār dare kuze ābesho bokhor! (Remember Seinfeld's "You can stuff your sorries in a sack!")? Your "sorry" doesn't mean anything to them. It's also frequently used with madrak, degrees/certifications. For example, someone got a degree from a university that really doesn't have any qualifications. Madrako bezār dare kuze ābesho bokhor! 
(Watch 5 seconds of this clip from the comedy Shahgoosh where the daughter says what she said isn't what she meant, and mother tells her to take what she meant and...)

Traditional Clothes in the Bazaar in Shiraz
2. دستم به دامنت 
dastam be dāmanet, my hand to your skirt
I'm begging you. For example, you tell someone a secret about a friend. You might say "dastam be dāmanet, don't let anyone find out!" It kind of makes sense, right? You're on your knees begging, trying to grab hold of the person's skirt. *Note: This is for a man or a woman even though it's a skirt.

3. دست از سرم بردار 
dast az saram vardār, take your hand off my head
Basically "leave me the hell alone." A semej person keeps pestering you for or about something and you just can't take it anymore. You snap and turn around and say "You're driving me crazy! Dast az saram vardār!"

4. با دمش فندق می شکند 
bā domesh fandogh mishkane, s/he's breaking hazelnuts with his/her tail
This phrase indicates a great deal of excitement (usually used to talk about others, not yourself). For example, after a long time, a woman finds the man of her dreams. This woman is so happy now that bā domesh fandogh mishkane

This phrase can also be used in another way. Say that woman's friend is kind of jealous that she found such a great person. Later on, the man and woman break up. The friend is now [secretly] breaking hazelnuts with her tail. 

Placing the matching hat on the namad, boiled wool jackets that shepherds commonly wear in the winter to keep warm. Bazaar, Neyshabur

5. سرم را کلاه گذاشت 
saramo kolāh gozāsht, he put a hat on my head
When someone puts a hat on your head, they are playing a trick on you. This trick is usually monetarily/economically related- like someone ripped you off. Ironically, a person who does this is called a kolāh bardār, a person who takes a hat off your head. So if in conversation you ever hear someone referred to as kolāh bardār, they are not good news.
(This phrase can be conjugated to fit other subjects/verb tenses.)

Rhubarb Syrup in Neyshabur. Neyshaburi rhubarb is famous.
6. سرم را شیره مالید 
saramo shire mālid, he rubbed syrup on my head
This is similar to number 5. Someone has played a trick on you, but this trick is more innocent. You might rub syrup on a child's head, for example, to get them to listen to you. 
(This phrase can be conjugated to fit other subjects/verb tenses.)

7. مثل جن و بسم الله 
mesle jin o bismillah, like a "ghost" and "in the name of God"
They used to say that if you are afraid of ghosts/spirits, say bismillah, Arabic for in the name of God, when you walk into a room because that would frighten the ghost away, and you would feel safe again. So when you use this phrase now, it's basically saying that 2 things don't mix, like oil and water

8. خاک تو سرت 
khāk to saret, dirt on your head
You use this when someone has a made a mistake and you're essentially wishing them to die. The concept comes from pouring dirt on someone when you are burying them. I've been using this phrase a lot lately for reasons that I cannot get into quite so publicly. The tone in which you say this phrase also makes a difference as to the degree in which you mean it.
(This phrase can be conjugated to fit other subjects.)

A variety on this is Che khāki be saram berizam?, What kind of dirt should I pour on my head? For example, your child takes the car out without your permission. Later you find out and say, well if you had gotten in an accident, man che khāki be saram berizam? You're implying that if (God forbid) something bad were to happen, what could you have done? Your life would have been over.

9. نانش تو روغن است 
noonesh to roghane, his bread is in oil
Back in the day, having oil was a sign of being middle or upper class. A lot of people just ate plain bread. So when someone has got it made, his bread is in oil. Say you just graduated from college, and you got an awesome job in an amazing city, and they are paying for all your expenses, apartment, etc... noonet to roghane!
(This phrase can be conjugated to fit other subjects.)


10. شاخ در آوردم 
shākh dar āvordam, I grew horns
This is used when you are absolutely shocked by some news and you just can't believe it.

11. گور باباش / گور پدرش
goore bābāsh!/goore pedaresh! his father's grave!
This is basically the equivalent of "to hell with him".

12. پدرم در آمد 
pedaram dar oomad, my father came out
When you put a LOT of effort into something, your father comes out. Imagine you've completed a research project that took years or you finished your thesis. Your father came out to complete these tasks. The outcome can be good or bad. 
(This phrase can be conjugated to fit other subjects.)

Hope you enjoyed the first group. Feel free to add your favorite below! More to come!



  1. maybe this is not appropriate to say, but when my boyfriend bought me ticket to iran he said to me "to koonet arusiye". haha :)

    1. Hahaha! I love it! "There is a wedding in your ass." Always a favorite :)

  2. Salam. Daste shoma dard nakone. Kheili ali bud :)
    Here are more of these. Maybe you can explain a few ones from the yahoo link, because they are written in Alefba. Keep up the good work.

    1. Salam! Khahesh mikonam va daste shoma dard nakone! I'll definitely take a look at the ones in the yahoo link. Thanks for reading!

  3. Thank you so much for providing the sound links! This is a fantastic and fascinating blog!

    1. Thanks for reading, Cyn! Glad to have you and good to know you find the sound links helpful. I hate hearing my own voice, but as long as it's helpful ... :)

  4. Thank you so much for making this blog! It's brilliant! :D

  5. here is a few other ones! saresh ba konesh bazi mikone! goz be shaghighe che rabti dare! yek ashi barat bepazam! hendone zire baghal gozashtan! poseta mikanam! pedar sag !ghadamet roye chesham!

  6. I'm enjoying Your "blog" very much. Thank You for the wonderful work.

  7. Hi! Thank you so much for compiling this list, it's great!

    I'm wondering why you transliterated بردار as "vardar" rather than "bardar" since the word begins with a ب. Is this just a particular colloquial pronunciation?

    1. Hi John, yes you are exactly right. The formal written way is with a ب but in spoken Persian it's usually pronounced with a "v" sound. There is always this discrepancy between written and spoken Persian. Speaking the written way sounds, as Iranians say, "bookish." :)


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