Translating idioms - how do you do it?

Translating Idioms: Why It’s Easy to get the Wrong End of the Stick

You might think it’s a piece of cake, but if you want to translate idioms literally, then you definitely have your head in the clouds. Okay, that might be a fairly clumsy way of trying to cram idioms into the opening sentence of this article, but sometimes you’ve just got to let your hair down – sorry!

Idioms are very common in spoken language. They are something we use almost every day to help to illustrate a point and add colour to our speech. There are an estimated 25,000 idioms in the English language, so they crop up in written form quite commonly, too.

While understanding the figurative meaning of idioms is not a problem for most native English speakers, the challenge comes when translating English idioms for foreign language speakers. The truth is that without skill and experience, it just does not work.

The trouble with translating idioms

Idioms are defined as “forms of expression natural to a language that have a meaning that is not deducible from the meaning of the individual words”. It’s little wonder, then, that idioms are difficult to translate.

There are two different methods of translating text:

Method 1: You can translate the individual words one by one and search for equivalent words in the target language. This is called literal translation and is the method that’s most commonly used by non-professional translators and machine translation tools.

Method 2: Alternatively, the translator can read and understand a phrase, sentence or paragraph in the source language and then recreate it in the target language to express the same meaning. This is the method favoured by professional translators.

If you try to translate idioms using the first method, then you’ll get in an almighty mess. As an example, the common English idiom, “a leopard can’t change its spots” cannot be translated literally into French because there is no such idiom in that language, so native French readers would have no idea what the term meant.

The common idiom that conveys the same figurative meaning in French is “chassez le naturel, il revient au gallop”. The literal translation of that is, “chase away the natural and it returns at a gallop”. That makes absolutely no sense to us in English. This goes to show that if you rely on a literal translation, you’re going to get into a whole heap of trouble.

So how do you go about translating idioms?

The truth is that it’s easier to avoid using idioms in text that is going to be translated. However, sometimes that’s not something you have any control over. So, how do you get to grips with these tricky terms? Here’s our three-step guide.

Step 1: Identify the idiom

If the source text is not in your native language, it’s not always easy to spot an idiom. As a general rule, if you read a phrase or sentence that consists of a metaphor that seems to bear no relation to the topic, there’s a good chance it’s an idiom.

Step 2:  Understand the idiom

Before you try to translate an idiom, it’s important that you double-check exactly what it means. Idioms, even in people’s native languages, are commonly understood. If you’re not a native speaker, then either ask someone who is or do some research online.

Step 3:  Find an equivalent in the target language

The final step is to incorporate an equivalent idiom that may not be a literal translation but has the same figurative meaning in the target language. This is not always possible, simply because idioms with a similar meaning may not exist. In that case, you have to convey the meaning of the idiom as best you can. It may not be as poetic as the source text, but it’s important to get the same message across.

Word-perfect translations that sing!

At Linguistica Translation and Recruitment, we create text that perfectly conveys the meaning and tone of the source text and incorporates idioms whenever possible. The result is a translation that contains colourful imagery, is beautifully crafted and reads like it was originally written in the target language.

Read more about our professional translation services, call 02392 987 765 or email today.