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Translating Metaphors: the translator’s challenge

translating metaphors


When translating texts, one of the challenges translators come across are animal metaphors. Surprisingly, almost all – if not all – languages have this to a degree. That makes it very important not just to know what they are, but also how to get around them.


What are animal metaphors?

Every culture, no matter how civilized, has a link to certain animals. These are always at the hearts of folklore, stories and such other cultural elements. Beyond that, though, they also make it into the language.

That is why you would hear expressions like ‘being dog tired,” “it’s a dog’s life,” and so much more.

These expressions are very important to every language in more ways than one. For one, they supply a deeper meaning than what they mean on the surface, aiding those who better understand such a language to infuse some literary elements into their language.

On the other hand, it is tied into the perception of these animals by different cultures. Thus, it goes beyond basic language significance to mean something on the cultural scale too.


Why translating metaphors is challenging

Often times, here are the reasons that apply:

  • Zero reference points – Some of these metaphors won’t fly in the target language just because such a culture is not used to the animal in question. For example, a statement might be made with beavers – which are almost native to some countries and can never be found in other places. It would, thus, become difficult to replicate the meaning of the source text without knowing how to represent the animal.
  • Perception – As mentioned above, not every culture perceives animals the same way. If someone from the US called a woman a cow, that would be termed as very derogatory. Afterall, cows are known to be on the big/ weightier side, and you could well be saying the same of the woman in question. Cross over to India, and you would be met with thanks. Afterall, they do believe cows to be very meek and gentle in that part of the world.
  • Accuracy of context – Perhaps the biggest challenge is in using the same animal as expressed in the source language, but with the exact context. That is not an easy task, if you ask us.


Getting better at translating metaphors

Fortunately, translating animal metaphors is not impossible. Before launching into them, the translator should know:

  • The context – This is the message which the author of the source text would like to pass across, and that is of paramount importance. By understanding the context, translators will be able to do so much more.
  • Cultural references – A translator must have an in-depth knowledge of both cultures they are translating to/ from to make this happen. Just like the reference to a cow above, they must make sure they are not offending any sets of people while pleasing the others.
  • Considering alternatives – Most times, translators can get away with using alternative forms of text when animal metaphors are involved. In as much as the final work stays in the same loop with the context (as discussed above), it’s fine.

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