Swedes are usually very good at English but sometimes, as you are likely to notice if you hang out with Swedes long enough – things can get a bit confusing. And it quite often has to do with proverbs that really don’t work when directly translated.
But what are proverbs?
A proverb is a popularly known saying that expresses a truth based on common sense or experience, and they are often metaphorical. Almost every culture has examples of its own unique proverbs, and it can easily become quite amusing or confusing when one tries to translate a proverb to another language.
An example of an English proverb could be “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings”. A saying that probably makes a lot of sense in English but translated to Swedish “det är inte över tills den tjocka damen sjunger” – simply sounds absurd.
So – if you at some point hear a Swede saying “now you’ve crapped in the blue cupboard” – don’t take it too literally. It’s just a proverb.
So let’s get started on those proverbs…
1. I have a rooster in my throat / jag har en tupp i halsen
Why anyone would ever want to have a rooster in ones throat is beyond anyone. Roosters are not known for being delicious – not even when properly cooked. But to “ha en tupp i halsen” simply means that you need to clear your throat.
2. You’ve crapped in the blue cupboard / Nu har du skitit i det blå skåpet
If you hear this don’t assume that Swedes aren’t yet potty trained. This is just a very graphic way to tell someone that they have done something wrong.
3. Don’t drag everyone over the same comb / Dra inte alla över en kam
Before you get visual images of tiny Swedes being dragged over a huge comb this is a way to tell someone not to generalize with a slightly negative connotation. For instance – Swedes are known for being shy but don’t drag all Swedes over the same comb by assuming that ALL Swedes will run and hide if you try to talk to them.
4. To slide on a shrimp sandwich / Att glida på en räkmacka
This doesn’t sound like a good experience. In fact, most people who have spent any time sliding around on any kind of seafood will probably classify that day as a particularly bad one – but not in Sweden. To “glida på en räkmacka” is in fact something to envy and describes a person who tends to be a bit too lucky – perhaps a bit like someone who gets things served on a silver platter.
5. It will dissolve said the old hag who crapped in the sink /Det löser sig sa kärringen som sket i vasken
For some reason a number of Swedish proverbs are connected with more basic bodily functions and this is a particularly direct proverb. But the meaning is much less offensive and is used to describe that a somehow sticky situation will in fact be solved. Quite often though this expression is shortened in Swedish to just “det löser sig” which directly translated means – it will dissolve.
6. Everything has a end except the sausage because it has two / Allting har en ände utom korven för den har två
This slightly baffling expressions is a way to explain that all things come to an end. However for some reason, Swedish sausages are exempt from that rule. Why? No one knows.
7. Only dead fish follow the stream /Bara döda fiskar följer strömmen
Swedes are not known for being overly confrontational and perhaps this is why they use this proverb to express that someone lacks his/her own will and just follows the general consensus.
8. A close shot doesn’t kill the hare / Nära skjuter ingen hare
The English equivalent for this expression would be “close but no cigar” and is used to describe a situation where you were close to a goal but didn’t quite get all the way. The real question here of course – is if the English version makes any more sense than the Swedish one – I think not.