By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
There are species of African monkeys who have warning cries for specific predators, and equally specific reactions to those cries. The “big cat” signal causes the troop to swarm up to the very highest branches of the trees, branches that can hold a small monkey but not the weight of a big cat. The “snake in the grass” cry causes them to stand up and look around for the serpent. Because snakes are stealth predators, once the warning call is given the “game is up” (we’ll get back to “snake in the grass” and “the game is up” in later blogs).
The reason we bring this up in the context of this blog is because the third predator call is a response to avian predators who appear “out of the blue” in the sky above. The monkey troop’s response to birds who appear in a clear blue sky is to hide in dense shrubbery that a winged predator will have trouble extracting them from.
Monkeys and other animals are not the only ones having to respond to events happening suddenly and unexpectedly. More often than not, homo sapiens sapiens also have to face unexpected events and their effects, like receiving good or bad news we never expected, wonderful surprises we never thought we could have, or friends from a time long gone reappearing into our lives unexpectedly, or “out of the blue”—a good or bad thing, depending on the case. We are caught unaware by these “out of the blue” events, and the resulting effect can be total wonderment or utter shock—something we actually wish had never happened.
This phrase, this concept of something coming out of the blue, or falling suddenly from the sky—the ‘blue’ in the expression referring indeed to the clear blue sky—is as old as time. In the figurative sense, it is an expression that can have a positive or a negative meaning, depending on the circumstances.
In a more pragmatic sense, there have been photographs, video records, debates led by meteorologists and geophysicists, and scientists waving computer graphics, mathematical computations and grant proposals in one another’s faces. All of this to try to figure out the origin of the bolts some people have stated as coming out of the blue in a clear blue sky.
So here we have the workings of our ancient planet itself sending seismic bolts out of the clear blue sky. We have monkeys watching for predatory bolts out of the blue. We have religious traditions creating life out of the blue. We have scientists trying to analyze the causes and mechanics of bolts out of the blue. And we have long gone acquaintances or old friends coming back into our lives completely out of the blue as well.
We aren’t trying to get cosmic, religious or sentimental here at Adarve Translations. We are just doing our best to translate the meanings of words, concepts and expressions from one language into another. We do admit that sometimes we get sidetracked into the greater picture. But if we didn’t understand the wider picture, how could we possibly understand the nuances of the translations that we provide for you on a daily basis?
This being said, let’s go back to the figurative sense of the English expression “out of the blue.” What happens when we find this expression in a document we need to translate? How do we render its correct interpretation, let’s say, in Spanish or in French?
If the monkeys we talked about above spoke Spanish, their warning cries for specific, unexpected, predators would say that such predators came de la nada (out of nowhere or out of the blue) and tried to catch them by surprise! If, on the other hand, what they found, “out of the blue” while strolling pleasantly with their family and friends was delicious food, or a new, stronger tree to climb on to and have fun, they would simply say that it was something como caído del cielo (like manna from heaven.) The Spanish language, then, uses at least two different expressions for the English “out of the blue.”
The French language is not very far behind the Spanish language in this case either. If our monkeys were French-speaking monkeys, they would most certainly say that the predators came upon them sans crier gare—an expression dating from the XII century that means to be on one’s guard. The happy event they stumbled upon during their pleasant stroll in the savannah requires, nonetheless, a different, more positive expression in French, and would be described as something tombé du ciel or providentiel (heaven-sent.)
We find it fascinating to come upon the expressions we have been bringing you in the last couple of months completely out of the blue. They allow us to delve into their origins and meanings. They allow us to broaden our knowledge, to understand the bigger picture, and to pass these discoveries on to you. They allow us to be better at what we do each day, being linguists and translators.
Stay tune for our next idiomatic expression,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual. Adriana has been the editor as well as a contributor to this article. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.