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Translating Idioms: The Very Heart of Quality Translation

Tutorials » Translating Idioms: The Very Heart of Quality Translation

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Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to translators is translating idioms properly between languages. Idioms are a big part of everyday language, and tied deeply into a culture’s vernacular. Even more-so than accents, you can probably tell where a person comes from based on some of the idioms that they use. This cultural aspect is very important, and this essence needs to be accounted for when translating and localizing any text.

But that can be easier said than done with idioms. For the uninitiated, idioms are linguistic expressions representing symbolic objects, concepts or actions of a particular culture. In other words, in a definition given by M. L. Larson, an idiom is “a string of words whose meaning is different from the meaning conveyed by the individual words” (Larson, 1984, p.20). Some common examples are, “Kick the bucket”, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”, and “Kill two birds with one stone”.

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Most idioms don’t have direct equivalents in other languages since they are very cultural by nature, and simply translating them literally will result in essentially nonsense in the other language. As Mona Baker states in her book, In Other Words, idioms are frozen patterns of language which allow little or no variation in form and often carry meanings which cannot be deduced from their individual components. She goes on to give five conditions for idioms:

  1. The order of the words in an idiom cannot be changed. The way the words are put together is fixed and they cannot change their place.
  2. The words in an idiom cannot be omitted. We as the users of the language are not permitted to delete some of the words of a particular element.
  3. There are no extra words that might be added to an idiom.
  4. No words in an idiom can be replaced by another word.
  5. The grammatical structures of an idiom also cannot be changed.

Translating idioms is very difficult, especially if the translator is not aware of the cultural differences between the source and target languages. If they are not familiar with the culture, they will have a difficult time even distinguishing idiomatic expressions from non-idiomatic expressions, let alone deciphering their meaning. Hence, you can see the difficulty…

To help shed some light, let’s take a look at the five different categories of idioms:

  1. Colloquialism - Colloquialism is an expression not used in formal speech or writing. Colloquialism or colloquial language is considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing, and are usually geographically determined. Ex. As the crow flies (measure of distance)
  2. Proverbs - A proverb is a short, generally known saying that contains some sort of lesson or moral. Ex. No Pain, No Gain. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
  3. Slang - Slang is the use of highly informal words and expressions that are not considered as the standard use of language. Sometimes these words can be profane or stand in for other profane words. They are usually generational. Ex. Cool. The Shiznit
  4. Allusions - Allusion is a figure of speech that makes a reference to a place, event, literary work, myth, or work of art, either directly or by implication. Ex. “Stop being a Scrooge and buy your kids some Christmas presents”
  5. Phrasal Verbs - Phrasal verb is the combination of a verb and a preposition, a verb and an adverb, or a verb with both an adverb and a preposition. Ex. To hand in (instead of deliver)

So how do translators do it?

Translators must first determine the context in which an idiom is used. Then he or she should make a decision about how the target readers could best comprehend the meaning of the idiom. When translating idioms, it’s the meaning that is most important. Whenever possible, the translator should substitute an equivalent idiom in the target language if the specific idiom would hold no meaning to the target reader. However, if there isn’t an equivalent idiom, per se, in the target language, then the translator should clarify the meaning of the specific idiom in the target language. At least then, the meaning is still maintained even if there isn’t a clever linguistic way to package it.

Larson, M.L. (1984). Meaning Based Translation: A Guide to Cross Language Equivalence. London and New York: University Press of America.
Baker, M. (1992). In Other Words: A Course Book on Translation. London and New York: Routledge.

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