Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Night and Day: Persian Expressions to Spice Up Talk About Your Daily Routine

I work with a bunch of translators and language teachers here in Tehran. They are native Persian speakers, and I, of course, am a native English speaker. Given the number of idioms and seemingly “untranslatable” items in Persian, they are always asking me how I would translate certain phrases from Persian to English. After some thought, I give my translation, and then we all agree that it just doesn’t get to the heart of it quite like the original. After my classes, my students here tell me khaste nabāshid and then immediately ask “How would you say that in English? What did your students used to say to you in the US?” Nothing, I tell them. "Really?!" Well, at best they would say, thank you, bye. So now I sometimes end my classes with a joking "Don't be tired", but I've made it very clear that you would never actually say that in English. You just can’t translate khaste nabāshid. It's cultural.

Then I throw a few English words and phrases at my colleagues to get their translation, which again, is just not the same. I mean, really, how would you translate cheesy into Persian? Sure, you can come up with something, but it’s just not the same. 
One day I got the question, “How would you translate تا لنگ ظهر, tā lenge zohr? Do you even have such a phrase?” The best I could come up with was until noon. We were both unsatisfied. How do you capture the essence of leng in the translation? Until noon is so…boring. Tā lenge zohr literally means, until the leg of noon. It’s frequently heard by mothers scolding their children (or perhaps mothers-in-law gossiping about their daughter/son-in-law) for sleeping in too late. Tā lenge zohr mikhābi!? You sleep until the leg of noon!? Sure tā lenge zohr and until noon are the same, but it’s one thing to say you slept tā lenge zohr and quite another to just say you slept in [until noon]…. With tā lenge zohr there is a sense of shame in the fact that you've slept in so late, and because of this, you usually use this phrase to talk about someone else, not yourself.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized we not only have a phrase related to sleeping in, but also to waking up and staying up.

My friend always tells me باید کله سحر بیدار شم bāyad kale sahar bidār sham literally, I have to wake up at the head of dawn, which is, of course, like the English to wake up at the crack of dawn. Ok, so this translation is pretty much the same. 

But then there’s my favorite one, and one that my aunt very frequently uses: 
تا بوق سگ tā booghe sag, literally until the dog’s horn. This phrase refers to staying up all night, or burning the midnight oil. When you work or study until the wee hours of the morning, you are up tā booghe sag. My aunt likes to reminisce about her vacations with friends in which they would stay out tā booghe sag [all night].

So why until the dog’s horn? Well, luckily I have a backstory for this one: back in the day, when the bazaars would close, there were watchmen who patrolled from dusk until dawn. But because the bazaars were so big, they couldn't patrol all the areas and had dogs known as “bazaar dogs” to help them. These predatory dogs were known to attack anyone but their owners. When the bazaars were closing, the watchmen would sound a horn made of ram horn 3 times to signal that the dogs were being let loose. This horn was known as booghe sag, and people would leave once they heard the warning. The watchmen and dogs would then patrol the bazaar all night. I guess that's who let the dogs out... (forgive me, I had to.)


  1. love this! my dad always says 'booghe sag' -- i always thought it was funny, but never knew what it was all about. thanks for elucidating!

    1. My pleasure! Yah, my aunt uses it all the time, and I always thought it was funny too. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for reading!

  2. you came back! nice post pontia, i always fancy of this kind of untranslatable persian idioms. thank you

    1. Yes! Trying to be good about posting more regularly again :) Thanks for reading Azreen, glad you enjoyed!

  3. Each language has its typical untranslatable phrases. Just like in Bulgarian one tells "I go to bed with the hens" meaning the hens go to sleep early so do I. Or I wake up with the rooster, the rooster is the one announcing the rising of the sun, the beginning of the new day.
    Thanks for the expressions I am coping in my textbook!
    Have a lovely week!

    1. Very true Nadezhda. To me these are some of the most interesting phrases- especially where they came from. Thanks so much for reading!


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