By Gianna Albaum

‘Every now and then’ is a fascinating phrase.

In Italian, “da tempo in tempo.” Literally, “from time in time.” Similarly, in French, ‘de temps à autre’ (from time to another). In Turkish, ‘zaman zaman’ (‘time time’) or ‘arada sirada’ (between time, or more literally, between ‘in a line’). In German, ‘hin und wieder’ (down and back). Danish is perhaps the most straight forward for English speakers — ‘nu og da’ (literally, now and then) — but in fact, ‘now and then’ literally means ‘now‘ (the current time) and then (a different time), which in fact does not mean ‘every now and then’ as we intend it — sometimes, but not other times. For lack of a better phrase.

Language Idiomatic Phrase Literal Translation
French de temps à autre from time to another
Turkish arada sirada between time
Turkish zaman zaman time time
German hin und weider down and back
German ab und zu from and to
Italian da tempo in tempo from time in time
Danish nu og da now and then

מדי פעם

some times
Russian времени
Yiddish fun tsayt tsu tsayt from time to time
Spanish de vez en cuando from time in when
Portuguese de vez em quando from time in when
Czech tu a tam here and there
Croatian svaki sada i onda every now and then
Hungarian egyszer-egyszer once-once
Swedish då och då when and when

In fact, I posit that it is almost impossible to define ‘every now and then’ without resorting to these phrases that in the end mean nothing. In English, synonyms come to mind — ‘now and then,’ ‘every so often,’ ‘from time to time,’ but they all amount to senseless phrases — literally, phrases without sense — when broken down linguistically.

For example, the phrase ‘every so often’ is grammatically impotent — ‘every,’ ‘so,’ and ‘often’ are all modifiers of a ghost noun. ‘From time to time’ of course denotes a metaphorical path — ‘from’ one time ‘to’ another time — which is not at all a denotation of an unspecified ‘collection’ of times, which is what we intend by ‘every now and then.’

‘Occasionally’ seems at first closer to the real meaning, but occasionally is an adverb — we might break it down to ‘on occasion‘ just as we might break down ‘literally‘ to mean ‘in a literal sense‘ — and ‘on occasion’ is too specific and singular.

‘Sometimes’ is not bad; literally, to do something ‘every now and then’ is to do something ‘some’ of the ‘times,’ but not others. Time, in the grand sense, is reduced to a collection of ‘times’ or ‘moments,’ and ‘sometimes’ merely denotes an unspecified handful of such times. This could technically mean everything from ‘once in the history of the universe’ to ‘every moment except one moment,’ which erases the subtle implication of the original phrase that the ‘times’ in question are separated by some relatively large quantity of time.

At the end of the day — another phrase which does not mean at all what it linguistically denotes — this amounts to no more than a vaguely interesting example of a phenomenon often noted by foreign language learners: most of what we say is metaphorical, and very little of that is grounded in common sense. We ‘throw our eyes’ in Turkish in order to look, we ‘watch our steps’ in English in order to be careful.

The significance of this particular phrase, however, lies in its ineffability across such a wide range of languages. I find it fascinating that there can be phrases that are so quotidian and at the same time so inherently incapable of being grounded in physical, definite language that all cultures must draw upon nonsense collections of words in order to express them.

By Tin Moe

Translated from Burmese by Maung Tha Noe

Words are imperfect signifiers
a word is a perfect signifier
I don’t know yet
Me and my language
are worlds apart.
I’d rather not use words.
Unable to create understanding
language cannot serve as a bridge
to the heart.
You’d better not breathe a word
you might be misunderstood.
Music unplucked on the harp
is sweeter, they say.
Don’t let me get caught up in disputes,
in arguments;
you retract your words,
I will take care of mine.
Let’s live like we were strangers.
For more posts on translation, click here.
If you find this interesting, you may be interested in reading Carolina Martes’ article “Translation in Conceptual Writing” from Vol. 2(1).