Recently, when doing a crash refreshment course in Bulgaria, I came upon and was baffled by “калинки и криминалинки.” My dictionary only confirmed what I already knew – that “калинка” was a bush. The trouble was, the article said there were a lot of them in the Bulgarian administration. Now, a government can often be a jungle, but the presence of any actual vegetation there seemed puzzling. It transpired that the expression had been derived from the name of a person – “Kalina” is also a first name. I then realised how frequent this kind of expressions was in Czech – and undoubtedly in any other language -, and what a horrible problem it created for translators.
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Such phrases often fail to be fully understood even by native speakers, as the “metalesku blesku” affair in the Czech Republic shows. In a recent electoral campaign, a candidate composed a ditty to support his little party, and used the expression “metalesku blesku” in it. He was immediately sued, as the phrase comes from a very popular Czech film, and its author didn’t share the aspiring poet’s political views (and must have been also appalled by his artistic level). The “poet” defended himself by saying that this was a popular phrase that had been always common in his region. In fact, the phrase had been invented as to sound Romanian and say, to a Czech native speaker, “go away very fast”. This is apparently not understood in the said region, from the way the expression was used in the song. But yes, voters sent the party away very fast indeed.
When the name (of a person or place) comes from classic literature, the situation is much better: all languages I know have the expression “Lilliputian” (with corresponding spelling and grammar adjustments), although most people would be hard pressed to say where it comes from. To take examples from other languages, you will find “pantagruélien” or “бай ганьовщина” (or its almost exact Czech equivalent “kondelíkovština“ – funny how so many nations think they have a patent for stupid and greedy oafs) in dictionaries or will be able to Google them. This also applies to the unpleasant habit in certain countries, of identifying a piece of legislature by the name of its initiator (or worse, ONLY by the date when it was passed). So that “loi 1901” or “loi Aubry” will be easily resolved, although you might learn, in the latter case, just that it pertains to the “35 heures,” and you will be none the wiser without a decent knowledge of French reality.
The situation is more difficult when the source is recent – literature, but often cinema, and very often politics. Phrases are coined on an everyday basis, either by politicians themselves (as seems to be the case of “калинки и криминалинки“) or – and more often – by journalists. For a person who has not been living in the country for many years AND following its cultural and political scene, it is practically impossible to know what kind a person a “hujer” is, what problem a government has when it needs a “melčák”, or what it entails to be somebody’s “bureš.”
The realization that the same thing must be happening in my source languages – and, in case of languages used in several countries, independently in each of these! – makes me despair. I will never, ever be able to understand them. The only consolation is, neither do many native speakers.