Idioms and Equivalence in Translation

By Stacey
Aug 24, 2014 · 3 min

As translators we should always aspire beyond simple adequate translation and try to produce dynamic equivalent translation work.

Idioms and Equivalence in Translation | One Hour Translation

Translation is an industry with a lot of history to it – what today is a slice of the overall globalisation industry, a department buried inside a division and usually with offices located in the basement – or frequently in no office at all when a company relies on freelancers such as myself for everything – has existed for centuries, and been responsible for some of the greatest cultural breakthroughs in history. Put simply, there would be no modern culture without the previous work of language translation experts throughout the ages.

Today, that means that we have a very high standard of quality to aspire to. No matter how small a part of a corporate vision translation happens to be, it’s got a lot to live up to if you want your work to count as more than simply adequate. If you want to get past the faint praise of ‘adequate translation’ you have to go beyond mere equivalence and pursue dynamic equivalence.

More than Adequate

Equivalence is a term that means, basically, that your target text conveys the same meaning and tone as your source text. It’s a dry term for a very mild achievement: It’s basically the basic goal of all translation work. Achieving it in your project isn’t exactly a reason to throw a party for yourself, it’s just a reason to send out an invoice and move on to the next project.

Dynamic Equivalent Translations (DET) aspire to something a little more than simply preserving ideas from a source text to a target text. DET aspires to make the target text – your translation – also read as naturally as the source text. This is a lot trickier than it seems. An equivalent translation often reads very stiffly, because simply conveying information often robs words of their music and their ‛bounce.’ Getting that bounce back takes a lot more effort – and a mastery of idioms.

Equivalency and Idioms

Idioms have made translators tear out their hair for hundreds of years. We’ve all had the dubious pleasure of encountering a strange expression in a source text that we’re simply not certain how to translate correctly. Idioms are colourful and add spice to language – but sometimes we deal with them instinctively. We ‛know’ what they mean via context and other clues found in the text without actually knowing what they literally mean.

DET requires that we research every idiom and know not only its origin and typical meaning, but how it’s being used in the actual text. People tend to slowly corrupt and warp idioms over time. Every time someone ‛tweaks’ an idiom to make it a little fresher, they nudge it further away from the traditional meaning – making our job that much more difficult.

We should all always aspire to greatness in our work, I think. Whether you are a translator, a bricklayer, or something else – aspire beyond adequacy.

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