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Idioms in Translation
September 6, 2017 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Idioms in Translation

What is the biggest pain in the neck for a translator? Idioms!

Used in everyday language, idioms are fixed expressions that are meant to be understood figuratively, such as “out of the blue,” “rub someone the wrong way,” “at the drop of a hat,” “hit the nail on the head,” “let the cat out of the bag” or “miss the boat.”

Idioms are truly unique expressions of human communication. They are rooted in the values, history, geography, religion, ideology and/or social classes of the culture that produced it.

Of course, idioms have literal or superficial meanings based on the words that make up the expression. However, when read that way, they typically seem strange or make no sense. Idioms are the natural territory of native and near-native speakers. Confusion is a typical response for second language learners upon hearing an idiom that they are not familiar with. The true meaning of an idiom lies in the figurative sense that it has developed over time.

Since idioms vary from language to language and even culture to culture, idioms are not universal. People from different languages may use distinct ideas to express the same thing through their idioms. Or, as products of their culture, people may use ideas that don’t exist in another language – idioms that effectively have no sister equivalent.

People who speak the same language may not understand the same idioms either. For example, some idioms are universally understood throughout England and the United States, but others aren’t understood beyond the originating nation’s borders. To add further possibilities for confusion, idioms understood by one person may not necessarily be understood by another if there is a large gap in education, social class or age between them. In short, idioms are tricky business.

What if your text needing translation contains idioms?

Translation Strategies for Idioms

What can a translator do when faced with an idiom? There are typically four main solutions available to the translator.

First, a translator can use a target language idiom whose meaning and structure are similar to the source language idiom.

Second, a translator can use a target language idiom whose meaning is similar to, but whose structure is different from, the source language idiom.

Third, a translator can paraphrase the figurative sense of the source language idiom. This helps preserve the original meaning of the text when an equivalent idiom is not available in the target language.

Fourth, a translator can omit the idiom. This may be the right solution if none of the previous three options are available. For example, if there is no equivalent or appropriate idiom in this particular language pair (preventing the use of the first and second solutions) and paraphrasing would only result in the audience’s confusion (preventing the use of the third solution).

As you can see, idioms are complex to navigate. That’s why you need the right linguistic expertise to ensure that your text’s idioms are rendered correctly into another language.

Responsive Translation for Quality Translation Services

We take translation seriously, not just idioms. Responsive Translation is a full-service translation agency certified for ISO 9001. For more information about our our range of quality translation services, please get in touch at or 212-355-4455 ext 208.

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