Translating Idioms: There is More Than Meets the Eye

So often many of us are prone to shrug off idioms. “Oh, those silly expressions? Whatever.” But if you look at “those expressions” you will see that they really are everywhere you look. I know. I have to explain them to my young son. I can’t “turn a blind eye” towards educating my son about the meanings behind the expressions we use daily.

Ilona K is a 5-Star Writer at WriterAccess

Ilona K is a 5-Star Writer at WriterAccess

The dictionary definition of idiom is, “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own.” Now just imagine trying to translate idioms. Sometimes when translators come across these phrases, they feel as though they are “shooting in the dark.” Even the best translators have come up against a few that have caused them to pause. I mean, how do you take something “straight from the horse’s mouth” and make it make sense in another language?  Here is “my two cents worth.” Please “take it with a grain of salt.”

Idioms are ubiquitous and entertaining. A few of them have even been credited to William Shakespeare. So when you “come full circle” or “go on a wild goose chase,” you can thank the Bard himself.  It is estimated that the English language alone contains 25,000 idiomatic expressions. That is a “whole hill of beans” for word-play that many people brush off.

It’s easy to dismiss them when you have grown up learning these expressions hand-in-hand with your native language. It is something else when you try to learn a new language.  All the English-As-A-Second-Language teachers I know all spend countless hours with their students reviewing idioms.  More than vocabulary and conjugations and simple expressions such as “where is the nearest bathroom,” students must learn idioms. Knowing idioms is immensely helpful in everyday life. It helps the language learner feel less like a “fish out of water.”

Translating these popular expressions can be a daunting task. Every language has many of them! And they are all different! Google translate has an exceptionally hard time translating them due to its more rigid word-for-word translation technique. Machines are just not good at metaphorical language like idioms.  Idioms are decidedly human and bound to the cultures they inhabit, making them harder to export without losing the original meaning. So, what are the tricks that translators use? Well, there is “more than one way to skin a cat.” [Tweet This]

First, find a similar Idiom

Translators first try to find an idiom that closely matches the one in the source document. In English, when something happens rarely, it is thought to happen “once in a blue moon.” Translating this word-for-word into Polish will cause people to cast very quizzical looks at you; however, in Polish “once in a Russian year” is roughly the same saying and it will help you avoid embarrassing yourself or “putting your foot in your mouth.”

We all know you’re not literally placing your appendage in your mouth. If you look at other cultures, they too have similar idioms.  The French say, “put their feet in the dish(es)” while the Spanish just “put the leg/paw” in no particular place. The French have a similar idiom when it comes to something costing “an arm and a leg.” For them, however, it only costs the eyes in their head, or “coûter les yeux de la tête.”

Think similar meaning

Sometimes translation is found in similar meanings. In English, we say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” The French equivalent expression is, “Il pleut des cordes,” which literally means, “It’s raining ropes.” Same idea. In Italian, “by the way” comes pretty close to the original with “between parentheses,” or fra parentesi.

When in doubt, paraphrase

When a suitable similar idiom cannot be found, the best – and most common -thing a translator does is paraphrase the meaning behind the expression. Often they will try to convey that the meaning is meant to be amusing.  Giving its literal translation in the target language may even add to the humor.

Translate by omitting

As with single words, an idiom may sometimes be omitted altogether in the target text. This could be because there is no close match in the target language, it cannot be paraphrased, or for stylistic reasons.

Move things around

A bit like omission, taking an idiom out of where it is placed and moving it to another place in the text may be more fitting. Moving it may help preserve its meaning or stylistic effect, depending on the target language.

Whether translating regular text or idioms, quality translators will always try “hit the nail on the head” and not stray from the source document even when it comes to the challenging figurative language of idioms. [Tweet This] This is no “piece of cake.” However, translators usually have an arsenal of similar idioms in the target language from which they can pick and choose. Such is the nature of a profession rooted in the ever-evolving, expressive nature of language.

Time for me to “hit the road.”

Ilona K wrote and illustrated her first novel when she was eleven. Her latest creations include website user guides for the Federal Aviation Administration and blog articles for a language service provider. Ilona can handle both the serious and sublime. And she does them all with professionalism, wit and a song in her heart.

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