A can of worms

Journalist: "Well yes, but one thing is obvious: this might open a real can of beans."
Eminent pundit: "Err, yes, a can of beans, indeed…"

[Pause] Suddenly not so stern-sounding journalist: "Oh dear, did I say can of beans? I meant can of worms, of course."[Laughter] The Today Programme, on Radio 4, early in the morning.
Once I had stopped chuckling to myself, my mind turned, as it usually does, to the translation of this particular term (can of worms, rather than can of beans). I know that to open a can of worms means that you discover a source of unforeseen and troublesome complexity, the dozens of mixed-up worms seemingly impossible to untangle. In French, I can’t think of an equivalent expression. Word reference gives guêpier (wasps’ nest) as a translation, but a guêpier it is more of a trap, a problematic situation difficult to get out of: to land oneself in it would be a good equivalent of se fourrer dans un guêpier. It doesn’t convey the idea of unexpected complexity, problems bringing on more problems. The expression un sac de nœuds (a bag of knots) conveys a similar image of entanglement, but not the idea of surprise. So I’m left wondering. If you can think of a good translation, I shall be very grateful.
By | 2016-10-18T15:51:17+00:00 March 30th, 2005|Idioms|5 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. Bettina March 30, 2005 at 3:07 pm

    The “can of worms” actually stems from the “Pandora’s box”.
    “The full story begins in 1962, when that phrase first wormed its way into print as a synonym of Pandora’s box. Pandora’s box, for those of you who have been keeping out of trouble, has long had the metaphoric meaning “a prolific source of troubles.” The phrase comes from the ancient Greek myth explaining how misery and evil were loosed upon humanity.”
    I quite like the “wasps’ nest” solution for that and would translate the unintentional pun along these lines into German (something like “in ein Vogelnest (or even a seasonal “Osternest”) stechen”. Alas, I can’t help you with a translation into French, sorry.

  2. céline March 31, 2005 at 3:02 pm

    Grenadine on the French side agrees with you, but I’m not so sure… Pandora’s box contained all the misery and evil of humanity, not problems, although one could argue that evil and misery are quite big problems. In a way, “boîte de Pandore” is a bit too powerful to translate “can of worms”, I think.

  3. language hat March 31, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    I don’t think “Pandora’s box” is an equivalent, and I also don’t feel surprise is a primary element here — when I think of “opening a can of worms” it seems to me it could just as well be something everyone knows will be messy — “let’s not go there.” So the bag of knots sounds good to me.

  4. Qov April 4, 2005 at 3:49 am

    The relation to Pandora’s box is that once done it cannot be undone. If you open a can of worms, they all start wiggling out, and you can never get them all to go back in the can. I’m not sure that it is so much of a surprise, as people frequently say things like, “I’m not going to open that can of worms,” *knowing* what’s inside.

  5. Bobby B April 12, 2005 at 11:54 am

    “Can of worms” is used not just to describe situations but also conversation topics. A can of worms could be a subject that you don’t want to get on to because it’s fraught with problems – it’s too complicated, raises too many questions, or might cause offence. In English you might also call this a “thorny topic” or a “minefield”. Perhaps there is a French equivalent for one of those.

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