Like pinning jelly to a wall

Blaming Tony Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall. I heard this expression earlier today on Radio 4. The journalist was commenting on how miraculously Tony Blair had been absolved by the Hutton enquiry into the death of Dr Kelly. It seems that no one can prove anything against the Prime Minister.
I of course immediately wondered how to translate this expression into French. And failed. I just couldn’t think of an equivalent visual expression in French. Jelly being so quintessentially British, I wondered if I could make up an expression with something quintessentially French that would also be impossible to pin to a wall. A baguette? That’s actually possible, you just need a really long pin. Cheese? Better, as it works for crumbly cheese, but then you could pin hard cheese, like camembert or gruyère. Wine? But who would try to pin wine on a wall anyway?
This was clearly getting silly. I needed a fresh approach. I turned to the Internet, my faithful ally, and found this one, which I quite liked: like teaching the Eiffel Tower to waltz (autant essayer d’apprendre à la Tour Eiffel à valser). Not quite as good, but still visual. Then I called my mum, who, with the help of the customers in her little shop, is always a precious resource when I’m looking for expressions. The best thing she could think of was "on reprochera quelque chose à Blair quand les poules auront des dents" (Blair will be blamed when chickens have teeth). It’s a better-known expression in French but we lose the visual image of an impossible and rather silly task. So I’m still not satisfied. Of course, your suggestions/flashes of creativity are most welcome.

23 February
The Nouvel Observateur translated this quote in the following manner: "Épingler Blair ? Impossible. Autant essayer essayer de punaiser de la gelée de fruit sur un mur !".
Interesting… A very literal translation, but I like the use of several sentences, which gives it a nice light rhythm. Another interesting choice is the very British jelly that’s been adapted to gelée de fruits. Borrowing jelly wouldn’t have confused any French speaking reader, most of whom have heard of this intriguing foodstuff. It would have allowed to give it a British air, which would have been a nice touch, seeing as this deals about British internal affairs.

By | 2016-10-18T15:52:16+00:00 January 29th, 2004|Idioms|14 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Caroline January 29, 2004 at 9:34 pm

    How about squeezing water out of a rock….

  2. L' Homard January 30, 2004 at 12:07 am

    How’s about blancmange? You’re bound to have trouble trying to nail that to any wall. Do you have that lovely dish in France or is it just an English pud with a French name to make it sound more exotic?

  3. Anthony Hope January 30, 2004 at 12:31 am

    How about “soufflé” instead of jelly? Or “blancmange”? (Although I suspect, like L’Homard, that the latter may not be quite as popular in France as the Frenchness of the word might suggest.) I have to admit, jelly is hard to beat (or to pin to a wall). It’s something to do with the inherent silliness of both the word and the food. Jelly’s just funny.

  4. Joerg January 30, 2004 at 3:11 am

    Funny, I’ve been reading your weblog and every time you have one of those expressions to translate I’m wondering what it would be in German – I’m a German living in the US. In German, this one would translate literally and mean the same – even though jelly is more British than “Pudding” is German. Languages are weird!

  5. Céline January 30, 2004 at 8:49 am

    D’you know, I had never heard about blancmange before. Having checked it in my French dictionnary (that spells it blanc-manger), I now know it’s a kind of jelly made of milk, almonds and sugar. But that’s a new one to me. How come you know about it and not me?? Is it a pudding that was created in France but became more popular abroad?
    I really like the soufflé suggestion!

  6. Ken Nichols January 30, 2004 at 11:01 am

    I come from America and had never heard of blancmange until Prince Charles was quoted as calling the Millenium Dome a “monstrous blancmange”, so at least we know what the dessert looks like.
    Concerning the basic simile, I can’t think of a widely-used equivalent in the U.S., though Southerners will improvise. Some I’ve heard are:
    “like trying to catch a greased pig”
    “like finding a black cat on a dark night”
    But the jelly simile works better, especially in this context, as one can visualize Mr. Blair effortlessly oozing away from the nail, the way the Terminator 2 would ooze past barriers.

  7. Joerg January 30, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    Monty Python fans know what a blancmange is – there’s one episode where one of those nearly wins Wimbledon.

  8. Anthony Hope February 1, 2004 at 1:58 pm

    More than you ever wanted to know about blancmange — here’s the full OED2 entry:
    blancmange, -manger. [In 14th c. /blancmanger/, a. OF. /blanc-manger/ (earlier -mangier), lit. ‘white food or dish,’ f. /blanc/ white + /manger/ to eat, eating, food. /Blanc/ fell already in 14th c. to blam-, bla-, blau-, later blawe-, blow-, blo-, bla-, and /manger/ was in 18th c. abridged to /mange/. The present spelling is a half attempt at restoring the French, but the pronunciation is that of the 18th c. /blomange/, /blamange/, often garnished with a French nasal, by those who know French.]
    a. Formerly: A dish composed usually of fowl, but also of other meat, minced with cream, rice, almonds, sugar, eggs, etc. Obs.
    b. Now: A sweetmeat made of dissolved isinglass or gelatine boiled with milk, etc., and forming an opaque white jelly; also a preparation of cornflour and milk, with flavouring substances.
    1377 Lang. P. Pl. B. xiii. 91 That neither bacoun ne braune _ blan[c]mangere ne mortrewes Is noither fisshe [ne] flesshe _ but fode for a penaunte.
    c1386 Chaucer Prol. 387 ffor blankmanger [v.r. blankemangere] that made he with the beste.
    c1420 Liber Cocorum 19 Blanc maungere of fysshe.
    c1460 J. Russell Bk. Nurture in Babees Bk. (1868) 165 Two potages, blanger mangere, & Also Iely.
    1483 Cath. Angl. 34 Blawemanger, peponus.
    1530 Ortus Voc., Blowmanger.
    1603 Holland Plutarchís Mor. 680 Their blamangers, jellies, chawdres.
    1626 Bacon Sylva §48 Blanch-Manger or Jelly.
    1769 Mrs. Raffald Eng. Housekpr. (1778) 195 To make Blomange of Isinglass.
    1772-84 Cook Voy. (1790) I. 54 Its flavour was something like blanc mange.
    1801 Wolcott (P. Pindar) Ep. Ct. Rumford Wks. 1812 V. 137 Soap~suds to Syllabubs and Trifles change, And Bullocks’ Lights and Livers to Blamange.
    1812 L. Hunt in Examiner 21 Dec. 801/1 Trembling at it’s fate, like blanc-manger.
    1862 Mrs. Beeton Cookery Bk. 44/1 Loosen the edges of the blanc~mange from the mould.
    c. fig. (cf. ‘flummery.’)
    1790 Burke Corr. (1844) III. 157 Whenever that politic prince made any of his flattering speeches..when he served them with this, and the rest of his blanc-mange, of which he was sufficiently liberal.
    Forms: 4 blancmanger(e, blank(e)manger(e, bla-, blam-, blan-, blaumanger, blamyngere, 5 blanc maungere, blaunche-, blonc-, blawemanger, blanger mangere, 6 blowmanger, 7 bla-, blanch-, blanck-, blankemanger, 8 blomange, 9 blamange, 8- blancmange, -manger.

  9. Jim Tyson February 4, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    As to the idiom, I can’t think of any particularly good suggestion but can deepen the problem: part of the success of “pinning jelly to the wall” is to do with the jelly, but part also on the semantic resonance of “pin”: one pins the blame on someone, you can even pin it on someone, tout court. Even if you find some substitute for jelly the pinning part may still be lacking. But now to my real beef: Camembert is hard cheese? I venture to suggest, Mme Le Traducteur (traducteuse? ca existe?), that you wanted “firm” here?

  10. Céline February 4, 2004 at 2:21 pm

    Goodness me Jim! The ‘pinning’ aspect of it had completely escaped me. This expression is even better than I thought. Mme La Traductrice should indeedy have avoided to classify gooey Camembert as a hard cheese; what I meant to say was that its hard rind made it possible to pin…

  11. Jim February 5, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    A moment’s thought would have given me traductice – if only because the default rule is -cteur –> -ctrice. And – nerd fact – the much earlier cognate from latin “traiteur” of course has “traiteuse”. So I had thought when I saw your correction “of course, it’s phonologically conditioned how you form the feminine!” but it’s not really at all, it’s when the word was introduced into French. As the Italians say: traduttore – traditore.

  12. Anthony Hope February 8, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    At the risk of sounding like a crazed jellophile — or is it too late to be worrying about that? — I just wanted to point out that the idiom seems to be “*nailing* jelly to a wall” (684 Google hits) rather than “*pinning* jelly to a wall” (34 hits, most of them from this blog!).
    And apparently it’s not just walls that you can (try to) nail jelly to:
    (I’ll go and lie down now.)

  13. Céline February 8, 2004 at 8:09 pm

    This latest comment drove me to search the exact quotation I heard on Radio 4 and this is what Boris Johnson (Conservative MP) said: “Nailing Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall”.

  14. pwyf February 18, 2004 at 9:07 pm

    how about une aiguille dans une botte de foin ? it’s not excatly what you’re trying to say, but it’s as understandable as quand les poules auront des dents… maybe i’m completely wrong, just trying to help !

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