Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

So the other day my friend was telling me about this employment contract which he said would "burst like a soap bubble". It doesn't seem to be a common idiom in English, but he seemed to mean by it that the contract would fail miserably, or 'fall through'. As he is German, he may have gotten inspiration from the idiomatic German phrase (which also means "burst like a soap bubble"):

wie eine Seifenblase zerplatzen

Is there a good analogous English expression? The only one I can think of is "fall like a house of cards", but that implies that the thing that will fail was weak to begin with, which I don't think the German expression implies.

share|improve this question
1  
come to naught ... hit the skids ... fall flat on one's face ... lay an egg ... go down swinging ... throw in the towel ... –  GEdgar Apr 8 '12 at 16:51
6  
Why don't you believe that the soap bubble analogy in German implies an inherent weakness? Aren't soap bubbles inherently transitory in Germany too? –  Jim Apr 8 '12 at 18:06
2  
"house of cards" also carries a whiff of an intent to deceive. –  Hexagon Tiling Apr 8 '12 at 21:33
    
I agree with @Jim. Soap bubbles are ephemeral, and as they expire they don't "fail miserably" — instead, their failure is what was expected. –  Robusto Apr 10 '12 at 15:59
    
For the record, I disagree that this question should've been closed. It is clearly not a pure translation question, and the German is there just to help those giving answers to give a better one, if they happen to know about German idioms. –  Jez Apr 28 '12 at 12:37
show 1 more comment

8 Answers 8

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The German idiom is used to describe something very fragile, when talking about dreams and desires which are shattered and not fulfilled. It seems beautiful at first glance but it ruptures suddenly. For instance, when someone wants to achieve something by all means and is on the point of doing it, suddenly an event happens in between and the dream burst so fast like a soap bubble.

So I guess the English idiom you suggested fits the situation perfectly:

House of cards: an unstable situation, plan, etc.

Also, another alternative would be:

Vanish into thin air: to disappear without leaving a trace.

share|improve this answer
2  
I think vanish into thin air is the best answer. As a German Google search reveals, by far the most common collocation of "wie eine Seifenblase zerplatzen" is with nouns such as dreams (Träume) and hopes (Hoffnungen). We are more likely to think of dreams and hopes disappearing into thin air (which is exactly what a bubble does) than collapsing like a house of cards, or any of the suggestions made by other answerers (possibly misled by the OP's claim that the German expression means to fail miserably). –  Shoe Apr 9 '12 at 14:31
add comment

Well, the equivalent English phrase is the same metaphor, but doesn't have the morphological and phonosemantic resources of the German one, though it works OK.

In English there are phrases with the metaphor and the words burst and bubble:

  • like bursting a bubble, like a bubble bursting, the bubble burst, when the bubble bursts

One doesn't need the Seife- part. And many English speakers would use bust instead of burst.

However, the German phrase employs the Germanic BL- "contained fluid" assonance in -blase and -platzen, while English can only employ the matched B's of bu(r)st and bubble, reduplicated in the latter; and English totally lacks the destructive zer- verbal prefix that contributes so much to the idiom.

Finally, the seven syllables of Seifenblase zerplatzen /'zaj.fən'bla.zə.tser'pla.tsən/ simply seem more poetically memorable than the three of bubble burst /'bə.bəl'bərst/, however effective all the B's are, and however pleasant the final -rst cluster is.

share|improve this answer
1  
Eight syllables? I only see seven. –  Jez Apr 9 '12 at 7:31
    
Whoops! Thanks. Seven syllables it is. I'll fix it. –  John Lawler Apr 9 '12 at 14:04
add comment

A couple thoughts:

1) To say that something will "fail miserably" without implying that it was weak to begin with, you might say go down in flames. For example:

  • That's a bad idea, it's going to go down in flames.
  • I don't want to be around when this goes down in flames.

Other expressions with similar connotation (miserable failure) include bite the dust, blow up in your face, or wipeout.

2) There is a similar English idiom, to burst your bubble, used like so:

  • I hate to burst your bubble, but that idea won't work.
  • Sorry to burst your bubble here, but what you're hoping for isn't going to happen.

The connotation is that someone has an idea that seems nice but is naïve or otherwise fanciful and not possible, and you are calling their attention to reality.

3) The example you gave, "collapse like a house of cards" is appropriate if the connotation of innate weakness is not a problem. In this case the connotation is something that looks good but is actually weak and easily destroyed. An example usage might be:

That business is nothing but a house of cards, I expect they'll go bankrupt any day now.

4) A similar variation to describe something as "seeming impressive" but turning out to be somehow false or illusionary is smoke and mirrors, as in:

The salesman made the product seem truly revolutionary, but in the end it was all smoke and mirrors.

I hope those give you some ideas. It's really, really challenging to convey the full meaning of an idiom from one language to another, in my experience it's better to know a range of similar sayings in the other language and to use the one that most closely matches the connotation of the specific situation.

share|improve this answer
add comment

If predicting a failure of an enterprise, one might say it will "go over like a lead Zeppelin" or "fly like a lead balloon".

share|improve this answer
add comment

"go down like a ton of bricks"

Examples -

share|improve this answer
add comment

Building castles in the sky - the phrase originated long before the advent of tall buildings and skyscrapers.

It means having elaborate plans that would never come to fruition.

The phrase closer to your expectation would be "building your house on sand". This phrase originated from Matthew 7:24-27 of the Christian scripture.

In the passage, Jesus was saying, "... are like the man who builds his house on rock. The rain came, the water rose, the wind .... foundation of the house on rock. ... but .... are like the man who builds his house on sand. The rain came, ....., the house fell with a mighty crash."

share|improve this answer
4  
Problem with that quote is, ask any builder, they'll tell you that sand is a great foundation, as long as it's relatively dry. Guess that's just proof that Jesus was a carpenter, and not a bricklayer :D –  naught101 Apr 9 '12 at 2:10
1  
I built my own 4 storey house, excavated the foundation. It is best that the foundation sits on rock, lay down drainage pipes before pouring the concrete. And then buffer the perimeter of the exterior walls with about 3 ft width of sand, to prevent water build-up around the house. Otherwise sand everywhere would be too unstable. –  Blessed Geek Apr 11 '12 at 0:36
add comment

In a normal context where the soap reference has no connection with the rest of the text, I'd ordinarily translate that with "go up in smoke", which conveys the idea of a shattered dream like you describe.

I guess it's close to "go down in flames" that has been suggested, but maybe more British because I've never thought of using that expression. (It also raises interesting quesitons about why you go down in flames but up in smoke, but that's for another day...)

share|improve this answer
add comment

The common English idiom that seems most similar to that usage to me is to say that something is going to crash and burn.

share|improve this answer
add comment

protected by RegDwigнt Apr 30 '12 at 18:37

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.