Adam Haynes – Professionele Vertaaldiensten


1 september 2021 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.



20 augustus 2021 AdamWeave430

A conlang or constructed language is a language that hasn’t developed naturally over time. Instead, it – and all of its components like grammar, vocabulary, and phonology – has been invented or devised. Other names for these types of language are invented languages, artificial languages or planned languages.

Why do people create constructed languages?

Some people simply love language and decide to create one. After all, for language-lovers, it’s quite entertaining deciding what your ideal language would be like. Often, fiction writers create constructed languages to give their fantasy or historical story a more realistic feel. Sometimes, though, there is a real purpose behind constructing a language. Esperanto, for example, was created as an international auxiliary language – that is a language meant for communication between different nations without a common language.

J.R.R. Tolkien the philologist

Many people are familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien as an author but he is arguably the most famous philologist too. A philologist is a person who studies language history and the term itself is derived from the Greek philologia, which means a love of learning, discussion, and literature. Tolkien was fascinated by language and after WWI, he worked for the Oxford English Dictionary where he was tasked with words beginning with W.

Tolkien began writing languages in his teenage years but his most famous of languages were his Elvish languages that he began inventing around 1910. He worked on these languages his whole life until he died in 1973.

Tolkien didn’t just write one language; his Elvish languages were a group of related languages. There were at least fifteen different dialects and languages each with its own vocabulary and grammar. These were split into three time periods too: Early (1910-1930), Mid (1935-1955), and Late. The most famous of these Elvish languages are Quenya, an Early language and Sindarin, a Late language. Quenya is partly built on Finnish morphology while Sindarin has features of Welsh phonology. However, there were not many borrowed words in his languages.

Esperanto – the most famous conlang

Esperanto is the most recognisable and most widely spoken of all constructed languages and it is the only constructed language that actually has some native speakers. Though difficult to estimate, it is thought that there are around 100,000 Esperanto speakers worldwide. Thanks to the internet, learning Esperanto is more accessible than ever and it even appears on the language learning app Duolingo.

It was first created in 1887 by Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof. At the time, his hometown of Bialystok was a part of the Russian Empire but nowadays is in Poland. Before the language was created, it was illegal to speak Polish in public places in the town. Through his creation, Zamenhof wanted to create harmony among people from different nations.

Conlangs – a summary

There is so much to say about conlangs that it’s impossible to write in one post. For people who are really interested in the concept of constructed languages, Arika Orient’s In the Land of Invented Languages is a great resource. As well as being informative, it’s an entertaining and intelligent read for anyone who loves words and language.

If you need a translation from or to a more established language, please don’t be afraid to get in touch.