What are idioms and how to properly translate them?

What are idioms

October 5, 2021

What is an Idiom?

The translation is meant to transfer the meaning of a word from one language into another. Sometimes, there are words and expressions that are difficult to translate due to different cultures and their usage. Idioms are not an exception. An idiom, roughly described as a phrase or expression that has a metaphoric rather than literal meaning, may be difficult when it comes to translation. As a proverb understood within a certain demographic community, an idiom can drop vivacity and tone when it is extracted into translated form. A highly experienced and knowledgeable translator comprehends this specific test and works hard to condense idioms and related figures of speech in a way that captures both the original expression but similarly the meaning implied by the words.

Idioms possess an exceptional role in the setting of a language. Their sense cannot be derived by purely trying to add together the connotation of all the words in the phrase. In fact, idioms habitually challenge definition through traditional ways. To precisely extract an idiom in translation, a translator must have an understanding of the culture and societies in which it occurs, as well as an understanding of the idiom’s indirect meaning.

 Why is translating idioms hard?

Language isn’t free of stimuli from other fields of our lives. Rather, it goes in line with the culture of its speaker, and idioms and particularly other kinds of metaphorical languages are molded by cultural components such as the spiritual beliefs, superstitions, social conventions, historical and geographical surroundings of the people of different communities and countries.

As soon as an idiom or fixed expression has been documented and interpreted correctly, the next phase is to make the decision on how to translate it into the target language. The complications involved in translating an idiom are entirely different from those involved in interpreting it. Here, the question is not whether a given idiom is clear, dense, or ambiguous. A misty expression may be easier to translate than a transparent one. Here are some of the main difficulties involved in translating idioms.

a) An idiom or fixed expression may have no equivalent in the target language. The way a language picks to express, or not so, numerous senses cannot be projected and only infrequently is in harmony with the way another language selects to express the same meanings. One language may express a given meaning by means of a single word, another via a fixed expression, a third through an idiom, et cetera. Thus, it does not sound realistic to expect to find equivalent idioms and expressions in the target languages as matter of course.

b) An idiom or fixed expression may have a similar matching part in the target language, but its context of use may be different; the two expressions may have different implications, for example, or they may not be matter-of-factly transportable.

c) At the same time, an idiom may be used in the source text in both its literal and idiomatic senses.

d) The very convention of using idioms in written speech, the contexts in which they can be used, and their regularity of usage may be dissimilar in the source and target languages.

 10 brilliant idioms that simply cannot be translated literally

Below are some of the idioms that cannot be translated literally, because of the reasons mentioned above.

The idiom in German: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.
Literal translation: “I only understand the train station.”
The meaning “I don’t understand a thing about what that person is saying.’”

The idiom in Swedish: Att glida in på en räkmacka
Literal translation: “To slide in on a shrimp sandwich.”
The meaning “It refers to somebody who didn’t have to work to get where they are.”

The idiom in Thai: ไก่เห็นตีนงู งูเห็นนมไก่
Literal translation: “The chicken sees the snake’s feet, the snake sees the chicken’s milk.”
The meaning: “It means two people know each other’s secrets.”

The idiom in Latvian: Ej bekot.
Literal translation: “‘Go pick mushrooms,’ or, more specifically, ‘Go pick boletes!’”
The meaning: “Go away and/or leave me alone.”

The idiom in French: Sauter du coq à l’âne.
Literal translation: “To jump from the cock to the donkey.”
The meaning “It means to keep changing topics without logic in a conversation.”

The idiom in Russian: Галопом по Европам
Literal translation: “Galloping across Europe.”
The meaning: “To do something hastily, haphazardly.”

The idiom in Portuguese: Pagar o pato
Literal translation: “Pay the duck.”
The meaning: “To take the blame for something you did not do.”

The idiom in Polish: Bułka z masłem.
Literal translation: “It’s a roll with butter.”
The meaning “It’s really easy.”

The idiom in Croatian: Muda Labudova
Literal translation: “Balls of a swan.”
The meaning: “It means something that’s impossible.”

The idiom in Dutch: Iets met de Franse slag doen
Literal translation: “Doing something with the French whiplash.”
The meaning: “This apparently comes from riding terminology. It means doing something hastily.”

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