Translating Idioms: Not Quite a Dime a Dozen

While they can be dismissed as unimportant parts of speech, idioms add spice and life to a language.  They are born from their culture of origin and they differ radically from one language to another.

There are different strategies for translating idioms and the care with which your translator uses these strategies can make or break your translation.  Inexperienced translators who only consider plugging one expression in for another may fail to transfer the true meaning of the source text.
Minimizing the effect of idioms to preserve the lexical form of the source language will also ruin your translation.  In both cases, the intended effect on your target reader will be lost and deprive them of the illustrative color idioms provide.
One of the more common solutions for translating idioms is translation by paraphrase.  For instance, in translating “it’s a piece of cake,” a translator would create a phrase in the target language equivalent to “it’s easy” or “no problem.”
In rare instances, the strategy might be to simply leave it out.  When single words have no match in the target language, cannot be easily paraphrased or perhaps the style does not match, sometimes its gotta go.
When two cultures have idiomatic expressions with similar meanings, the easiest strategy is to substitute one for another.  This substitution should be based on inherent meaning, not similar linguistic elements or similar images created by the idiom.  A phrase is needed to serve the same purpose in the translated language as that from the source language.
Of course it you don’t truly understand the meaning behind the idiomatic expression and the cultural triggers that create it, how can you choose a similarly functioning idiom in the target language?  What if there is no equivalent in the target language?
Sometimes languages do not overtly express meaning and idiomatic expressions are linked to social behavior or cultural convention that may not translate (for example, “say when” is a very English expression).  This doesn’t mean the expression is untranslatable, just a little more difficult to handle.  This is also where an experienced translator pays off.
Idiomatic expressions make a communication interesting and vivid.  Cats with tongues and bats from hell produce memorable images in your reader’s minds.  Failing to translate them well can create lackluster target text.  Don’t throw caution to the wind.  Make sure the idioms in your source text receive the attention they deserve.

Sherry Dineen


One thought on “Translating Idioms: Not Quite a Dime a Dozen

  1. i learned “to be on tenter hooks” means in fact to be very nervous, but in germany people would say “wie auf glühenden kohlen sitzen” which means literally “to sit on glowing coal”. if you don’t know the adequate idiom of the other language, you have to circumscribe it, e.g. “in der not frisst der teufel fliegen” means “the starving devil eats flies” for this i did not find the english idiom. in german people say”mit seinem latein am ende sein” literally means”to be at the end of one’s latin” but it means in fact”to be at one’s wits end”…

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