Animal Metaphors: A Challenge for Translators - Part 1

August 28th, 2016

Animals have always played an important role in history and have become an integral part of many societies.

Animal Metaphors: A Challenge for Translators - Part 1 | One Hour Translation

Animals have always played an important role in history and have become an integral part of many societies, whether they be modern or ancient, civilized or otherwise. Folklore is full of animal tales, animals are used as the main characters in moral lessons, and they're the inevitable stories of talking animals. It’s not surprising, therefore, that animal metaphors and other references to animals are firmly embedded in daily language usage, and thus help create the literacy legacy of a culture. In fact, idioms and metaphors can be found in any culture you can think of.

When we, as humans, are attempting to express our feelings, we commonly resort to feelings and experiences that we believe are common to all people. Obviously, this will only have an effect if the other person’s background is similar to ours, which is a fairly safe assumption to make when you’re within a particular cultural group. However, when you’re speaking across cultures and across languages, it’s not safe to make these assumptions and, doing so, can create a breakdown in communications.

Every Culture Has Its Own Set of Metaphors

When you say to someone within your own culture that ‘I’m dog tired’, you’re assuming the person you’re speaking to knows that you mean you’re exhausted. Because dogs can be found all over the world, the fast breathing and lolling tongue of a canine are quite familiar to most people; however, this doesn’t mean that there’s a perfect equivalent in every language. Although, that being said, the English saying ‘It’s a dog’s life’ actually has a perfect Romanian correspondent – ‘viață de câine’, which means a life of deprivation and hardship.

Of course, if you use the expression ‘He’s an eager beaver’, it wouldn’t make much sense to someone who knows nothing at all about beavers. The confusion arises when people don’t understand that each culture has its own set of idioms, metaphors, and expressions which relate to animals and that these will not typically be in congruence with those of other languages and cultures.

Why Animal Metaphors Are Difficult to Translate

1: No Reference Point

A lack of reference is the first challenge to both understanding and translating a metaphor. Similar to beavers, there are many instances where animals are found in only one country but not another. This means that the absence, or rarity, of an animal in a particular country, leaves the translation expert with no reference point when translating from the source language. For instance, there’s probably no equivalent in any African language for ‘As warm as sealskin’, because, besides the fact that seals are not that common in Africa, the climate of the region doesn’t lend itself towards keeping oneself warm using an animal skin. Certainly not when the average temperature in Ethiopia is almost 40°C!

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