Why translating idioms is not a piece of cake?

Although the translation of idioms may seem like a Sisyphean task, it is actually a task that can be performed with a lot of creativity, patience and knowledge. As the Cambridge Dictionary defines it, an idiom is “a group of words in a fixed order that has a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own.” Due to their inconspicuous meaning, they often represent an obstacle for non-native speakers as they cannot be understood literally.

Types of idioms

Manojlović, Dajak and Brkić Bakarić (2017) points out that idioms can be distinguished according to 3 different criteria. Firstly, they can be categorized on the basis of their structure. Idioms consisting of minimally two independent lexical units, phonetic words and those assuming a syntactic form.

Idioms can further be distinguished regarding their origin. The most common ones being the Bible (doubting Thomas), literature (to be or not to be), professions (too many cooks spoil the broth) and history. An example of an idiom originating from Hellenic history is the phrase “resting on laurels”. Expressing someone’s excessive contempt for past achievements. They can also be differentiated between national and international idioms, universally used all over the world.  Therefore, the form and meaning of idioms can sometimes fully overlap in the source and target language. One such example between English and Croatian is the idiom “to judge a book by its covers” or “suditi knjigu po koricama”. Also, idioms can be found in many different forms – from metaphors and metonymies to proverbs and similes.

Translating idioms.

Importance of professional translation

Idioms are a domain where translators show their true colors. Some idioms are often overlooked by lay people and machine translation tools as well. That leads to an incorrect literal translation. The study conducted by Manojlović, Dajak and Brkić Bakarić (2017) showed that the majority of translations done by machine translation (Google Translate and Assistant) result in literal translations. Apart from that, some even contained anomalies in form and untranslated parts.

How does a translator approach the process of translating idioms?

So how does a translator approach this challenging process of translating idioms? Firstly, one has to identify the idiomatic expression in the source text. Following that, the translator has to grasp the meaning of the idiom. If the translator is not immediately familiar with the expression, it is then necessary to consult phraseological dictionaries or search engines. The final step is finding the equivalent in the target language. However, it is not always possible to do so. In some instances, the idiom only exists within the frameworks of the source culture.

The translator has to choose between different ways of conveying the same meaning. In the first case, it is possible to translate such an idiom with another idiom of similar form and meaning. In example, “go through the eye of a needle” and “provući se kroz ušicu igle”. If that is not possible, the next step is translation by means of an expression of similar meaning, but a different form.

Phrases “rob Peter to pay Paul” and “prelijevati iz šupljeg u prazno” are an example of such a strategy. The third option is to paraphrase the source idiom in order to transfer the meaning to the target audience. Even though “to be on cloud nine” could be translated as “biti na sedmom nebu”, it is also possible to simply paraphrase it – “biti vrlo sretan”. The final option is to completely erase the idiom in cases where there are no plausible translations in the target language.

To sum up...

Although translating idioms is not the easiest task, it is a fun process requiring creativity and resourcefulness. The usage of an appropriate idiom in a translation can elevate the quality of a text, giving it a natural and authentic character. Since machine translation does not guarantee a satisfying execution.

Read more blogs about translating on our website.

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