Getting started is half the battle when you’ve got big ambitions. So, it’s helpful to have a few colourful phrases to lean on.
One of our favourite idioms to communicate the desire to start something is “to get the ball rolling”.
To get the ball rolling paints a mental image. A ball in motion, picking up speed. Bumps become no match for its momentum as it rockets into the sunset where the finish line awaits.
Our quest for the origin and variations of “to get the ball rolling”
The origin of “get the ball rolling” is unclear. Some attribute it to American president William Harrison’s victory balls. Others to 19th-century croquet.
Wherever it came from, it’s popular across Britain to communicate a desire to make a start or set something in motion, physically or metaphorically.
So popular, in fact, it’s become a business go-to. But idioms present a challenge when it comes to translating business content.
How do you translate the energy and mental clarity of an idiom into another language? We can’t throw in the towel1* and reduce the phrase to “start”. How boring.
We can’t translate the literal expression as we may write gibberish. And we’re likely to miss out on the chance to connect with our audience by using rich dialectal equivalents.
So, to answer our question and learn how to translate the idiom “get the ball rolling”, we spoke to native language speakers across Europe.
Here’s what we found.
The sentiment of an idiom stays the same
Every European language speaker we interviewed gave us variations of our phrase that included motion.
In Swiss-German they say “get the stone rolling”, which is spoken as “Dr Schtäi ins Rolle bringe” in Basel or “De Schtei is Role bringe” in Zurich.
And the Finnish go for “Pistää pyörät pyörimään” meaning to “get the wheels rolling”.
Both translations give us a sense of moving forward, whatever the method. Speaking of…
The method of an idiom changes with each language
As we discussed, many languages use similar phrasing to the English idiom.
Some add a bit of personality. Take Norwegian, a snowy country, where the ball becomes a snowball.
In some languages they use references from their culture or history to communicate the concept of motion.
In Modern Greek, they say “βάζω το νερό στ’ αυλάκι“, which translates to “put water into the groove”,—likely influenced by their everyday link to the Mediterranean Sea.
In Italy, they use “Apriamo le danze” or “let’s open the dance”. Known for late evening dinners and folk dances such as Tarantella, wanting to start anything with dance in Italy makes perfect sense.
404: No idiom found
In many languages, there are no equivalent metaphors or similes. But the lack of an idiom doesn’t mean they all use “get started”. Instead they use phrases that reflect their cultural norms.
Take these three phases from three different languages. What clues do they give you about the speaker’s culture?
Danish: “At give bolden op” which means “to take the initiative”.
German: “Etwas in Bewegung setzen” which translates to “set something in motion”.
Hungarian: “Vágjunk bele!” which translates to “let’s do it!”.
Each phrase is similar but unique. In Russia, astronaut Yuri Gagarin popularised the phrase “Поехали!” which means “let’s go!”. This phrase is now used across the country to indicate the start of something big.
Standardised phrases are examples of text that appear interchangeable but aren’t. The original phrasing is essential if a brand wants to be genuine. We operate with the Native Speaker Principle. This principle tells us text cannot sound natural unless all cultural nuances are included which only a native speaker can provide.
European translations of the phrase ‘get the ball rolling’
Let’s look at the research we undertook for European translations of the phrase ‘get the ball rolling’.
Here’s the full list of European translations of “to get the ball rolling”:
|Czech||jdeme na to||Let’s go for it|
|Danish||At give bolden op||To get something started/take the initiative|
|Dutch||Het balletje aan het rollen brengen||Get the little ball rolling|
|Finnish||Pistää pyörät pyörimään||Get the wheels rolling|
|French||Donner le coup d’envoi||Kick off the match|
|German||Etwas in Bewegung setzen||Set something in motion|
|Greek||βάζω το νερό στ’ αυλάκι (informal)||Put water into the groove|
|Hungarian||Vágjunk bele!||Let’s do it!|
|Irish||Let’s kick it offLet’s get going with it||–|
|Italian||Apriamo le danze||Let’s open the dance|
|Lithuanian||Pradek dabar||Start now|
|Norwegian||Få snøballen til å rulle||Get the snowball rolling|
|Polish||zacząć działać||Take action|
|Portuguese||pôr mãos à obra||Get to work|
|Spanish||poner manos a la obra||Get down to work|
|Swedish||Sätta bollen i rullning||Get the ball rolling|
|Swiss-German||Dr Schtäi ins Rolle bringe (Basel)De Schtei is Role bringe (Zurich)||Get the stone rolling|
|Turkish||Hadi yallah||Let’s move|
Google Translate: an idiom’s worst nightmare
Don’t get us wrong; we love Google Translate for its accessible nature. But for professional translations, Google Translate doesn’t cut it3*. Here’s why.
We took the anglicised version of each phrase, translated it into its native language and then back to English to see what happened.
After a full round of translations, The Finnish phrase “get the wheels rolling” became “bangs the wheels”–a lot noisier and less useful than wheels in motion!
“Let’s do it” used in Hungary became “Let’s cut it”, which means the opposite. If someone asked you to cut something, you’d stop what you were doing, not start!
When the Polish phrase “take action” is given the Google Translate treatment, it’s spat out as “start acting”. Acting up? Acting out? We’re not sure. We just know it’s not ending up in our translations.
Explore the full list of Google Translate idiom fails:
|Czech||Let’s go for it||Here we go|
|Danish||To get something started/take the initiative||To give the ball up|
|Dutch||Get the little ball rolling||Roll the ball|
|Finnish||Get the wheels rolling||Bangs the wheels|
|French||Kick off the match||Kick off|
|German||Set something in motion||Set up something|
|Greek||Put water into the groove||I put water in the ditch|
|Hungarian||Let’s do it!||Let’s cut it!|
|Italian||Let’s open the dance||Let’s open the dance|
|Lithuanian||Start now||Start now|
|Norwegian||Get the snowball rolling||Get the snowball to roll|
|Polish||Take action||Start acting|
|Portuguese||Get to work||Get to work|
|Spanish||Get down to work||Get down to work|
|Swedish||Get the ball rolling||Put the ball rolling|
|Swiss-German||Get the stone rolling||N.B. Swiss-German is not a written language|
|Turkish||Let’s move||Let’s go|
For the love of idioms around the world
Idioms offer a short hand to a feeling or message of intent which can feel a bit like a secret language. They’ve evolved in almost every language and often change between dialects.
To “get the ball rolling” is also just one of many idioms, learn “put a sock in it” and ten other idioms, here.
Ask the experts: idioms
We spoke to experts to learn about unusual idioms in their languages, alongside their thoughts on idioms in language:
Get the ball rolling:
In French, we use “donner le coup d’envoi”. We borrowed the phrase from the world of sports and with a very specific ball in mind; a football. “Coup d’envoi” means the start of the game, so we’re referring to kick-off at the start of a game of football or soccer, but really it could refer to any sport.
What are some other unusual idioms from the French language?
Ça ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard” (literally, “it won’t break 3 legs on a duck”), which you’d say when you’re not impressed by something.
“Compter pour du beurre” (literally “to count for butter”). When you say “ça compte pour du beurre” (“it counts for butter), it means “it does not count”. Apparently, the expression dates back to the 19th century, when butter had a negative connotation.
In Sweden people like to be polite, so there are multiple ways to say someone is not very smart or doesn’t understand what’s going on. If someone is unintelligent, we’d say Bakom flötet (literally “behind the float”). Or If someone was untalented, we’d say “Född i farstun” (literally “born in the foyer”).
Daniel González – Spanish translator
Get the ball rolling:
The Spanish version of “get the ball rolling” – poner manos a la obra could be used both in formal or informal settings, since it’s very widespread, but I would say it’s probably more common in slightly more informal situations.
The use of idioms in Spain:
We definitely use idioms a lot in Spain. They are extremely common in conversations and tend to be very visual. However, more often than not, the image they convey is quite different from one in the English language.
We do have some examples where the expressions are quite similar (e.g. “kill two birds with one stone” vs “matar dos pájaros de un tiro (kill two birds with one shot)”. However, there are many more examples where that’s not the case.
This is really a key point in translations of texts that use idioms as the base of a message (marketing texts, for example), since very often the whole idea will have to be changed in order to adapt it to the target language/culture.
It goes without saying that this is a specific area where machine translation cannot match human expertise, since it often translates the message literally, rather than “transforming” it into the relevant idiom/imagery in the target language.
Iris Heldensen – German translator
Get the ball rolling:
There are various options to translate this expression into German, but in the context of idioms, and I believe the most widely used, is: “den Stein ins Rollen bringen” (get the stone rolling)
There are also other options: “etwas in Bewegung setzen“, “eine Sache in Gang bringen” and “mit etwas anfangen“.
It is used to describe when something is kicked off, in particular when it should/will/might develop dynamics of its own. The image of an avalanche springs to mind, and I think this is also where the use of “stone” in this context may come from. Apparently, evidence for the written use of this idiom dates back to 1865.
The use of idioms in Germany:
The German language has countless really nice idioms – it is impossible to pinpoint a certain imagery or topic used: the range is vast! There are some idioms that quite literally correspond to their English equivalents, but many are expressed completely differently. What I personally find interesting is that sometimes only one word may vary, just like in our example – ball vs. stone.
Another one that springs to mind: in English it is “comparing apples and oranges”, whilst in German it is “comparing apples and pears”. So simply translating an idiom is never a good option!
International contexts where people are speaking “business English” are quite interesting in terms of idioms. If all the speakers are non-native English speakers, in other words they are all speaking English as a second language and may all have different first languages, they are less likely to use lots of idiomatic language because idioms are very culture specific. They can be ambiguous and cause communication mishaps across linguistic and geographical contexts. However, if you put a native English speaker in the same room, they might stir things up linguistically by using more idioms and this can lead to some very confused conversations or, worse, break a deal!
The issue is that idioms do not translate literally word-by-word from one language to another. There may well be an equivalent expression that captures a similar feeling or meaning, but the actual words will not be the same. For example, in English we say it is “raining cats and dogs” but in Spanish it rains husbands and in Portuguese it rains knives! I’ve written about multilingual equivalents of this particular idiom on my blog – “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs!“
“Beat around the bush” is an everyday idiom that caused unexpected confusion for me when I was teaching business English in Paris. The literal “frapper au tour de l’arbuste” does not exist, as French people would say “tourner au tour du pot” (go around the pot). I once got into a convoluted conversation with a hedge fund manager who thought I was talking about financial leveraging using words he didn’t know and he panicked because he thought his English was really advanced. It was, but I had just used an idiom he hadn’t met yet.
Idioms are great and can help us understand the cultural nuances of a country: we say beat about the bush and French people say turn around the pot and this gives us a clue about how people live and think. However, in business contexts, it often pays to keep language simple, more literal and less full of metaphors. Idioms are not everyone’s cup of tea (or onions) after all!
Lucy Pembayun – founder of LEaF Translations
Idioms can be a bit of a nightmare for translators: it can be tricky to decipher their meaning, and once you have, there are often no direct equivalents in other languages and cultures. But, if you get them right, idioms can also elevate a translation. When it comes to idioms, the holy grail for translators is to correctly understand the idiom in the source language and come up with an equivalent in the target language – the imagery may be totally different, but if it has the same meaning and is used in the same context, it will make the translation read like a text that has been crafted in that language, rather than translated. And this is what sets professional translators apart – they have the cultural knowledge, skill and ability to convey the meaning behind the words, rather than the just words themselves.
Outsourcing your marketing and business translations
Brands often rely on a mix of Google Translate and A-level language skills to translate their content.
But using free translation methods can leave you with poor content that doesn’t achieve what you need it to. Learn why in our article about why free translations can cost your business.
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There we go; we’ve been on a language trip around Europe! Keep up with idioms and phrases alike on the LEaF Facebook page. Or, challenge yourself as a keeper of content by reading The Ultimate Guide to Translating Idioms.
1* Throw in the towel = To quickly give up on something when a challenge is presented.
2* Doesn’t cut it = To achieve a certain level of performance