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Translating idioms… even the tricky ones!

Tricky Idioms!

Idioms are notorious among foreign language learners and translators alike. They can be quite hard to learn, and translating idioms can feel almost impossible! However, idioms are also what gives a language its identity, what makes one’s speech rich, expressive, and full of imagery. 

Let us take a quick look at what idioms are and how to translate them.


What are idioms 

An idiom is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as ‘a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own’.

The first part – ‘in a fixed order’ – means that idioms are typically set expressions. If you change the word order or remove/add words – even those with a similar meaning – the idiom falls apart. 

For instance, it’s ‘the devil’s advocate’, but not ‘the advocate of the devil’. Someone can be ‘fit as a fiddle’, but not ‘fit like a fiddle’.

Some idioms do have variants, for example, you can ‘greet someone with open arms’ as well as ‘welcome someone with open arms’, but these variants are not numerous and also quite fixed. 

The second part of the definition – ‘meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own’ means that often the sum (the meaning of the idiom) is larger than just its parts (individual words in the phrase) or differs from them quite a lot.

For example, the idiom ‘cross one’s fingers’ contains not just the meaning of physically crossing one’s fingers, but the idea that the person is doing it to wish someone good luck. 


How to translate idioms

Due to the fact that the meaning of most idioms differs from the meaning of the individual words comprising them, idioms are notoriously hard to translate. What is more, idioms often contain cultural and/or historical references, which makes translating them even harder. 


Here are a few tips on how you can go about translating idioms

First, check the meaning of the idiom in a good dictionary. Look at the meaning, as well as the connotations – is it slang or formal, does it imply a negative or a positive attitude, etc. 

Even if you think you know the idiom well you may benefit from reading the definition. And if you are not sure about the meaning of an idiot, looking it up is a must!

The next step is to find an equivalent to the idiom in the target language. Remember! In most cases, idioms cannot be translated word for word, and an idiom’s equivalent in the target language can have very different words and a very different structure. 

For example, the Spanish idiom ‘estar como una cabra’ means ‘to be crazy’ and the literal words are ‘to be like a goat’. However, the English language does not use the word ‘goat’ in the same way. Possible English equivalents are ‘to be mad as a hornet’ or ‘to be crazy as a bat’.

Here is another example. In German, there is an idiom ‘wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen’ – literally, ‘where fox and hare say goodnight to one another’. Can you guess the English equivalent? It’s ‘in the middle of nowhere’ – as you can see, quite different from the German one.

Ultimately, it is important to keep in mind that you can never rely on a word-for-word translation of an idiom. Even with simpler cases, like ‘keeping one’s fingers crossed’, there may be hidden meanings and implications. Be ready to use a dictionary, do some research, and look up even familiar idioms to be on the safe side – and you will soon become a master of translating idioms. 

Further reading:

Quality in Translation: How do you define the concept of quality in translation? The word ‘quality’ is used by everyone in the world of translation, all clients want it, and all translation suppliers offer it…

Why does pricing for translation services vary so wildly? Are different prices directly related to differing levels of quality?

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