How to Effectively Translate an Idiom


If you want a quick answer to the question of how to translate an idiom, then the simplestone is, there isn’t. Any linguist who’s been faced with translating an idiom has gotten stuck on more than one occasion. That’s because there is no short-cut or easy way of translating an idiom. No one-size-fits-all or step-by-step guide for getting out of this pickle.Translating idioms is in fact, widely believed to be one of the hardest things you can do in translation.

As no two languages are alike and two no idioms created equal, the only way to translate an idiom is through a combination of judgement and experience. Because idioms are so steeped into a nation’s culture, customs, roots and even geography, take them out of context and they can lose meaning.

Which means that even sayings in the same language can become nonsensical from the US to the UK. Before you’ve even started thinking about translation from one language to another. Let’s take the example of the famous Australian idioms “beyond the back stump” or your “blood is worth bottling” – uttering these will likely get you a few curious looks and furrowed brows on English soil.

Likewise, “popping your clogs” or “taking the Mickey” will probably not be understood down under. When it comes to idioms or humor then, your job as a translator is not to stay as faithful as possible to the words in the sentence. Your job is to stay as close as you can to the meaning.

This usually means extracting the implied meaning from the words and finding a suitable way to paraphrase them in the target language. When it comes to translating an idiom effectively, you’re pretty much on your own. But, just for kicks and giggles, here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Don’t Translate Word For Word

You probably never do this anyway, especially if you’re not using CAT tools for your translations. But translating an idiom (anything in fact) word-for-word is a recipe for disaster. If you don’t understand any of the words in front of you and they’re very colloquial in meaning, then it’s probably best to skip the idiom and move on. Don’t just toss it into Google Translate and hope for the best.

  1. Don’t Translate Out of Context

If possible, don’t translate the idiom out of context. If you haven’t just randomly been asked the question…

“How do you say it’s a dog-eat-dog world in Spanish?”or “What’s the Arabic translation of it’s raining cats and dogs?”

…And have come across your idiom in a text, then see under what circumstances it appears. Look at the context that surrounds it. If you’re translating an article about working in the desert and find an expression that suggests heat, use your contextual clues.

  1. Don’t Translate Literally

It’s not much use translating an idiom literally, unless you know that the same expression exists in two different countries. “Die Katzeim Sack kaufen” (to buy a cat in a sack) won’t make any sense translated literally from German to English. You need to find an appropriate idiom or way of describing the one you’re translating.

  1. Research

You know the words. You know you have to translate them. But you don’t know what they mean. So, do some research. Lucky for you, you have access to an unlimited amount of information at your fingertips by simply opening up your search engine.

Run the awkward phrase through Google and see what it comes up with. You know that German idiom about the cat? In English that means letting it out of the bag. Just a few more seconds of your time can make the difference between an accurate portrayal and the reader’s furrowed brow.

  1. Don’t Stress About It

Last of all. Don’t stress about it. You’re not the first linguist out there to face this problem and you certainly won’t be the last. Unless you’re translating a centuries old literary novel or a Shakespeare play, it’s unlikely that everything you translate is an idiom. If it’s one small line in a large mound of text, then don’t stress about it. Do the best you can, put your best foot forward and carry on.

Author Bio:

Sean Patrick Hopwood is a language polyglot and a language enthusiast. His goal in life is to bring world peace through education, tolerance and cultural awareness. He is also the President and Founder at Day Translations, Inc., a global translation company.


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