A bear’s service


Hello and welcome to another edition of SoundCzech, Radio Prague’s Czech language course, helping you learn new idioms and key phrases through song lyrics. Today we’re listening to a song by Hana Hegerová – the Czech queen of chanson sometimes referred to as this country’s answer to Edith Piaf. The tune is called ‘Potměšilý host’ (which you could translate as ‘the wily guest’) and the phrase to listen out for comes nearly halfway through the song. It goes “slouží službu medvědí”:

‘Sloužit medvědí službu’ translates literally as ‘to do a bear’s service’, and actually means to - with the best of intentions - do more harm than good, or to set out to help someone and actually end up doing harm to that person. Here at Radio Prague we couldn’t think of any neat English translation for ‘sloužit medvědí službu’– the closest idiomatic equivalent we could muster was ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. But that doesn’t quite fit, because the infernal overtones of the English phrase make it sound quite a lot stronger than the Czech ‘bear’s service’. Maybe you can help us – if you can think of a better translation of ‘sloužit medvědí službu’, then write to us. Here’s the phrase again to stimulate your imagination.

Some more ursine idioms now: people who are clumsy, or slow and heavy in their movements, are sometimes compared to bears (medvědi) in Czech. If someone lumbers about the place, then you can say ‘valí se jako medvěd’– ‘he moves like a bear’. Or you can call a rather ham-fisted individual ‘neohrabaný jako medvěd’– ‘as clumsy as a bear’. And this isn’t all that common, but if you are exhausted and plan to have a good long sleep, in Czech you can say ‘budu spát jako medvěd’– ‘I’m going to sleep like a bear’. I hope this hasn’t been more Czech than you can bear, and with that awful pun, I bid you goodbye, na shledanou!