A simple idiomatic translation exercise (part 1)

You’re a translator, and you have been given the following statement in Estonian (with an English literal translation), how do you think it should be translated into English?

Sääsest elevanti tegema
To make an elephant out of a gnat

Similarly, you’ve also been given a statement in Finnish. What is your guess for an English translation?

tehdä kärpäsestä härkänen
to make a bull out of a fly

See also: A simple idiomatic translation exercise (part 2).


  1. Jonathan
    Posted March 26, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    I’d guess “To make a mountain out of a molehill.”

  2. Posted March 26, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    I have the same guess as Jonathan for both idioms.

  3. Posted March 26, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    I need context. Small samples ripped from a text can mean anything, the Bible says more than once “There is no God.”

  4. Dannii
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    For all we know they could be the names of spells from a Transfiguration textbook!

    Jonathan’s is the obvious guess, but I’m waiting to be surprised.

  5. Nathan
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    (A) To make something bigger/worse than it really is.
    (B) To make something bigger/worse than it needs to be.

    These are both common phrases that mean to magnify or inflate something, usually a problem. To (C) “make a mountain out of a molehill” is a metaphor with the same meaning.

    I think there might be something else going on in the background, though, with the Finnish example “to make a bull out of a fly”. A fly is something small that bothers a bull. A bull is good if you’re a farmer, but bad if you’re caught alone with an angry one. So there might be a connection such as (D) “to take something bad and make it into something good/worse”. Or, since flies are often found near bulls, it could mean assuming that (E) “where there’s smoke there’s also fire” or (F) “counting one’s chickens before they hatch.”

    Or it could just be a juxtaposition of two animals that are often seen together, in which case (A), (B) and (C) would be sufficient.

  6. Ruud
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    In Dutch we have the same saying as the Estonian:

    “Van een mug een olifant maken.”
    To make an elephant out of a gnat

  7. Daniel Buck
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the scholarly consensus so far.

    The first idiom emphasizes size, as a gnat is the smallest animal imaginable, and the elephant the largest. This idiom must be of fairly recent coinage in Estonia, as elephants were unknown there prior to the 19th century. Note the loan-word itself.

    The second idiom contrasts not size, but potential danger. A fly is simply a bother, its bite only a minor irritation at worse. A bull, however, is nothing to be trifled with. It can gore and maim at the least provocation, or none.

    As Estonians became less of an agricultural society they could relate less to the older idiom, and started the process of replacing it with one that was more conformable to a more global expression, but one even farther removed from their own experience.

  8. Daniel Buck
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Oops, I just caught that these are from two different languages–but fairly recently diverged cognates. They of course would have shared the original idiom, but as the languages diverged from Old Finnish the Estonians were the first (being closer to the center of things) to adopt the more foreign expression.

  9. Posted April 10, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m a Finn. I won’t spoil the game yet. (-:

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