There were a dozen or so emails, waiting to be opened. All of them have been, and most of them have also been answered. To the senders of those that haven’t yet had a reply, I apologise. You will.
But it wasn’t the look of all those emails that almost made me blush – even though I was happily surprised. It was Kristiaan, whose letter addressed me as Filip de Schone – Philip the Fair – and gave the column his thumbs up.
Goed bezig! he said, using a typical expression, meaning “nice work!” or “well done!”. He asked: “Would you translate it as ‘well busy’?”
Well, Kristiaan, if you wanted to find the literal translation, yes. But the problem with expressions is that the literal translation often doesn’t make any sense – or worse, means something totally different and sometimes just plain absurd.
I Always Get My Sin for example, is the title of a book filled with the odd English you sometimes get from Dutch speakers. Ik krijg altijd mijn zin actually means “I always get what I want”. (Zin, really, is untranslatable. The closest is “sense”. Onzin means nonsense. Zin hebben in iets means “to feel like doing something”. Ik heb zin om naar de bioscoop te gaan, I feel like going to the cinema.)
Another classic is: “I don’t want to fall with the door in the house, but...” Ik wil niet met de deur in huis vallen, maar... is something you say when you don’t want to be rude by cutting to the chase but are still going to. (Something Dutch speakers, so they say, are particularly good at.)
And then there’s: “He is not the first the best!” Niet de eerste de beste means “Not just any…”. For instance, zij is niet de eerste de beste popmuzikant, she is not just any other pop musician.”
The cover of the book is an illustration showing a guy “falling with his nose in the butter”. Met je neus in de boter vallen means to get lucky, often through being at the right place at the right time. (Butter used to be a good thing, I guess.) Nu al een promotie! Hij valt er echt met zijn neus in de boter, A promotion already! He was certainly lucky to get that job.
And then, of course, there are those well-meant phrases that, when translated incorrectly, can be dangerous. So don’t get mad the next time a Dutch speaker comes up to you, shakes your hand, smiles and asks: “How do you do and how do you do your wife?”
What he is trying to say is: Hoe gaat het met u en hoe gaat het met uw vrouw? How are you and how is your wife? If anybody knows any other good ones, you know where to send them!