How to Approach Idioms and Expressions: Alternatives to Literal Translation

Idea TranslationsBest PracticesHow to Approach Idioms and Expressions: Alternatives to Literal Translation
Are you familiar with figurative expressions in other languages?

Idioms, metaphors, hyperboles, jargon and idiomatic expressions: all the languages in the world have a vast number of these, which are closely related to their own worldview and arise from very particular cultural contexts.

Such phrases and structures pose a real challenge for translation. What are the best strategies for approaching figurative language?

The limits of the lexicon

Essential for the evolution of languages, these phrases are common to each specific population, mostly used figuratively. As mentioned in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, these expressions work in a way that, in many cases, literal meanings cannot: “We use them every day, sometimes without even realizing that what we say makes no sense without the implicit and widely accepted meaning behind it.”

Some examples in the English language are “to turn a blind eye” (to refuse to acknowledge a known truth), “feeling under the weather” (feeling sick), “to spill the beans” (to reveal a secret), “it’s a piece of cake” (it’s easy), “it rings a bell” (something sounds familiar or reminds you of something), and “to get cold feet” (to suddenly become scared to do something you had planned to do).

It is estimated that there are at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language.
Source: The Idioms

So, what happens when it’s time to translate these expressions? Mohammad Jafar Jabbari, a linguistics professor at Yasouj University, points out that idioms generally do not translate well. “Sometimes, when an idiom is translated word-for-word into another language, its meaning changes or doesn’t make any sense. Most likely, the literal translation of an idiom will not convey the same meaning in other languages,” says the Iranian professor.

The English language has particular phrases to refer to death, for example: “to kick the bucket,” “to bite the dust,” “to breathe your last,” “to buy the farm,” among many others. However, although the reference is rather universal, other languages use very different idioms. The French say “manger des pissenlits par la racine” (the literal translation in English would be “to eat dandelions by the root”) or “casser sa pipe” (to break one’s pipe), while in Spanish, phrases like “estirar la pata” (stretch the leg) or “pasar a mejor vida” (move on to a better life) are used.

Multiple possible approaches

Idiomatic expressions involve customs and traditions, historical events, myths, beliefs, superstitions, as well as practices specific to certain events, literary works and even legends, among other elements. In that sense, it is clear that literal translation is not a good strategy, except in very specific cases, such as “read between the lines” in English and “leer entre líneas” in Spanish, which happen to maintain their equivalence.

However, even in those cases, problems may arise. “An idiom in the source language may have a very close counterpart in the target language that seems similar on the surface but has a completely or partially different meaning,” researchers from Nizwa University emphasize.

Idioms are figurative expressions, and the ability to handle such expressions successfully only develops around the age of 9.
Source: Frontiers

Thus, there are several valid strategies, depending on the case:

● Using an idiom with a similar meaning and form.
● Using an idiom with a similar meaning but a different form.
● Paraphrase translation (saying the same thing with simpler words).
● Omission translation.
● Literal translation.

Beyond these categories, what professionals and academics propose is to resort to equivalences, approximations or correspondences. In-depth knowledge of both the source and target languages, as well as their socio-cultural nuances, are key allies in translation projects involving figurative language. In fact, most idioms are translated literally (and incorrectly) by automatic translation systems.

Professor Despoina Panou explains: “Goal-oriented approaches see the source text as the starting point for the translation process and focus mainly on cultural, historical, and socio-political factors surrounding the translation, considering it as a phenomenon linked to culture. Despite its shortcomings, it should be emphasized that equivalence remains one of the fundamental defining axes of translation, as it serves as a reminder of the central problems that a translator encounters during the translation process.”

All in all, when facing idioms, metaphors and expressions, knowing how to make good decisions seems essential to avoid bad translations.

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