Idioms and Translation - Part 2

December 19th, 2015

Idioms are just a part of the translation process so, love them or hate them, all translators must deal with them at one point or another.

Idioms and Translation - Part 2 | One Hour Translation

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Global Idioms Include –

  • If you were in Turkey or Italy and you say ‘you’re as hungry as a wolf’, then you’re starving; and
  • In Czech and Norwegian, ‘walking around hot porridge’ means you’re beating around the bush.
  • With long teeth’ in Finnish means you’re engaged in something you don’t really want to be engaged in; while in French ‘to have long teeth’ means you’re very ambitious.

Other Interesting Common Idioms

  • Changing your tune’, means changing your mind;
  • It’s not over until the fat lady sings’ refers to when you try making a decision without knowing all the facts;
  • Break a leg’ means good luck;
  • Being ‘in the spotlight’ means you’ve become the centre of attention;
  • When you ‘fine tune’ something, it means you’re making small improvements to it.

As you can see, it’s very clear that the key to understanding local idioms is to ask questions of local speakers, and listen very carefully to what they say!

Must Translators Be Familiar with All Idioms?

When translating, the importance of localized knowledge is key. But does this mean that when translating from Spanish to English (for example) is the translator expected to know all the idioms used throughout Spain and the Latin American countries? And are Spanish speakers required to know every idiom in every dialect throughout all the English-speaking countries?

  • For our example let’s take a look at the phrase ‘make up’. For people who only know the meaning of the words ‘make’ and ‘up’, it could be a struggle to recognize that when one puts these two words together they have many different meanings, such as to compose something, to form a group, to reconcile with a lover or friend, to invent an excuse or story, to regain or repay something, to supply something that is lacking, or to apply face make up.
  • Another interesting example is ‘all over it’. Normally this would refer to something being covered in something else. But someone can be ‘all over it’ when they’ve been asked a specific question on a certain topic – meaning they know all about it.

Idiom Dictionaries Can Be a Lifesaver

So we can see that, unless a translator is completely proficient in the specific target language and the dialect from which they’re translating, it’s almost impossible to know and understand all the idioms.

If you’re struggling with a phrase, try searching it in an idiom dictionary. For English idioms, the Idiom Connection is a great reference source, and the Free Dictionary has quite a comprehensive list of idioms in various languages. Of course it always helps to have friends who are native to the source language, and preferably the dialect as well, for when you are well and truly stuck!

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