5 untranslatable German expressions and what they actually mean

Untranslatable German expressions

German is full of fantastic words or phrases for concepts that the English language has no equivalent for. Here are 5 examples of untranslatable German expressions with their literal translations, and what they actually mean.

  • Das wurde am grünen Tisch entschieden

    Literally meaning ‘that was decided at the green table’, this potentially confusing German phrase has nothing to do with green tables. It’s actually a phrase used when talking about sporting events.

    The phrase refers to a result that has no bearing on the actual event. The decision has instead been made afterwards by a supervisory body – usually due to one of the competitors being caught cheating.

    An example could be the FIA finding out that Lewis Hamilton had cheated during the 2018 F1 season and choosing to disqualify him. Vettel would then be promoted to first in the results table.

  • Der kreißende Berg gebiert eine Maus

    This German phrase literally translates to something like ‘the labouring mountain gives birth to a mouse’. But what it actually means is the act of expending a great deal of effort for an unsatisfactory outcome.

  • Kummerspeck

    The literal translation of ‘Kummerspeck’ is ‘grief/misery bacon’. What a German is actually talking about, however, is excess weight that has been gained through emotional overeating.

  • Verschlimmbessern

    ‘Verschlimmbessern’ is a great German word that would literally translate as ‘to worsen-improve’. German speakers are actually referring to the act of improving something for the worse. Or in other words, attempting to improve something, but only making matters worse instead.

  • Wermutstropfen

    ‘Ein Wermutstropfen’ is literally ‘a drop of vermouth’. But in this instance, German speakers aren’t talking about the alcoholic drink you might mix with gin. What they are actually getting at is the downside of something that is otherwise positive.

So, there you have 5 untranslatable German expressions and what they actually mean. For more German phrases and words that either have obscure equivalents in English, or simply don’t have one at all, why not head over to our glossary of German idioms?