How to translate and interpret idioms and expressions?

11th Nov 2015

In Germany you have “Tomaten auf den Augen” (tomatoes in the eyes), whereas in Italy you have “Gli occhi foderati di prosciutto” (ham in the eyes) if you are not seeing what everyone else can see. If you are in a café in Paris with a French friend and you talk about your love and suddenly you tell him/her about what you cooked the night before, you “Sautes du coq à l’âne” (to jump from the cock to the donkey). “Bu?ka z mas?em” in Polish is a “piece of cake” in English, just to refer to an easy task. If a friend of you steals something in a shop and you take the fault, in Portugal you probably do “Pagar o pato” (pay the duck). If you’re hiding your claws and pretending to be a nice, in Japan they say you ?????, literally you are wearing a cat on your head.

We can carry on so long, having fun comparing how the same meaning for a situation is associated to different images in different languages. Although online translation tools and free online dictionaries are becoming more and more sophisticated, asking Google Translate to translate expressions and idioms they cannot substitute the human element. In fact, an automated translation provided by Google Translate does not include the culture in its mechanism and so the translation will be literal. This is the main weakness of free online translator concerning this matter! So, if translation is not your cup of tea, you are now on the wrong track, because translating expressions could be a pain in the neck! Warning: if you areunder the weather stop reading this blog, but please note that our suggestions could bring you over the moon!

Speaking foreign languages obviously requires a knowledge of grammar as well as a wide range of vocabulary. However, it is essential not to forget the cultural background of the countries where the languages are spoken. This is maybe one of the major hindrances to overcome, when you are translating or interpreting a foreign language. Unless you are bilingual, it is really difficult to acquire a perfect knowledge of the target languages, particularly regarding idioms and expressions, as they can even differ from various regions and dialects inside a specific country. In fact, every country, state, region, or location has their own versions or variations of slang words. Idioms are like metaphors, provided that their meaning is hidden, and you need to know what idea the whole expression carries to work out a solution.

If you hear idioms or expressions that you’re not familiar with, you are unlikely to be able to understand the meaning behind these words or phrases and you are not in the condition to convey the various aspects in the target language.  Obviously, you cannot create anything on your own by simply translating it word for word, but what we suggest to do is to find the nearest equivalent, adopting some techniques. Here you have some tips to wipe out a quizzical expression from your face when you don’t understand an idiom!

Remember! While translating idioms you have time to do your research for the meaning of a source language idiom on the Internet or in the vocabulary and find an appropriate solution for the target language. But when interpreting you don’t have enough time and you have to work out fast solutions!

Be Careful! Some idioms are 'misleading': they seem transparent because they offer a reasonable literal interpretation, but their idiomatic meanings are different; or maybe you can notice that an idiom in the source language may have a very close counterpart in the target language, but, even though it looks similar on the surface, it has a totally different meaning.

Paraphrase! Generally you have to focus on a strategy of equivalence that actually involves paraphrasing. It means that, once you have understood the meaning, you should say it with other sentences that mix up the sense together. For example, if you don’t find an equivalent in the target language for the English expression prepare the ground you should paraphrase with “create a suitable situation for something to take place”.

Omit! Give up at the idea of losing something from the original expression. It would be great having the same figure, magic and fun of an original idiom, but sometimes it is simply not possible. If fact, it could happen that it has no close match in the target language or other stylistic reasons impede to proceed with an appropriate translation!

Compensate! Using the typical phraseology of the target language with its natural collocations will significantly enhance the readability of your translations. In this way your target text will seem less foreign and can pass for an original. However, naturalness is also affected by other linguistic features.

Be creative! You should have an open mind and enjoy your work having fun, even though carefulness is a rule. You could create similarity or images that can be near the original meaning. Then, you can feast your eyes on your work! 

Alessio Foderi – Intern atPearl Linguistics 

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