Adam Haynes – Professional Translation Services

Cross and delight – the pitfalls of translating idioms

1 September 2021 by AdamWeave43

A brief introduction to idioms

Who has never let the cat out of the bag, raise their hand? Many of you will laugh, some of you might be confused by this expression. Why? Maybe because you are not a native speaker and you never came across it. Idioms are tricky that way, especially for translators.

The Oxford Learners Dictionary defines ‘idiom’ as ‘a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words’, but the truth is that idioms go much deeper than that. As Larson (1984) gracefully put it, an idiom ‘carries certain emotive connotations not expressed in the other lexical item’; meaning that not only is the meaning of the expression completely different from that of the words that make it up, but it also carries an extraordinary baggage of culture that the translator is tasked with transposing.

The problem of translation

There are several issues when tackling the translation of idioms that might literally lead them to be ‘lost in translation’, the main being:

  • Understanding the implicit meaning of the idiom (i.e. let the cat out of the bag = to tell a secret by mistake)
  • Conveying that implicit meaning
  • Maintaining the tone that is culturally embedded in the idiom (joyful, of reproach, humorous, etc.)
  • The risk of completely changing the intended meaning, hence compromising part of the translated text

Multiple techniques have been attempted by many different experts for many different languages. They all work to an extent, but the truth is that there is no universal rule, because there are just too many factors at play.

What can a translator do then? I think that there is a philosophy, rather than an approach, that might benefit us in most situations.

Approaching an idiom for translation

Whenever I am presented with an idiom to translate, I adopt a simple six-step philosophy that helps me render it as faithfully as possible:

  1. Make sure that you understand every nuance of the expression and research its origins
  2. Check if there is a direct translation (sometimes there is, for example, some idioms taken from the bible, such as ‘I wash my hands of this’)
  3. If there is no direct translation, research a similar idiom (for example ‘kill two birds with one stone’ can be translated in Italian with ‘prendere due piccioni con una fava’, the words are different, but the idiom means the same thing)
  4. If there is no similar idiom, research an idiom that has the same shade of meaning. It is often hard to find, but there are cases when it’s possible
  5. If all else fail, paraphrase the meaning of the idiom, trying to capture the intended tone
  6. No matter what, never translate the idiom literally!

Final thoughts

Idioms are can be a big bump in the road of a good translation. On the other hand, they are what makes a language unique. The world of idioms is a wonderful way to explore and understand a culture. As translators, idioms are something that we should cherish and try to preserve as much as possible in our work.

If you want to dig deeper into the translation of idioms, there is a good paper by Amineh Adelnia and Hossein Vahid Dastjerdi that you can read here.

Whether your text is idiomatic in nature or not, Weaving Words can provide high-quality translation if you need it. Please get in touch.