The art of translating idioms

We use them all the time. Some of them are so common it’s hard to avoid using them. On any given day, we may bend over backwards to help someone, jump down someone’s throat if we got up on the wrong side of the bed, or pay through the nose for car repairs. Translate these expressions directly into other languages and people won’t be able to make heads or tails of them. They are idiomatic expressions that have meaning by culture and custom—not because of the literal meaning of the words. Other languages and cultures have them, too, and they may sound just as incomprehensible translated into English as American expressions would sound in other languages.

Jag Bhalla has made a hobby of collecting such expressions from around the world and has recently published them in an entertaining book entitled I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms from around the World (National Geographic, 2009). Browse through this book and you’ll get a sense of the challenges translators face when they have to “translate” idioms. (See the promotional video.) This is the kind of thing that separates the sheep from the goats when it comes to translators.

The best art

As we have often stressed in the past, translation doesn’t just consist of substituting one word for another. Often there is no exact parallel word in the other language. The translator also wants the translation to read fluently and to have the same general tone and flavor of the original. In the case of idioms, the translator can’t just translate literally if the translation is to be useful. So what are their choices when faced with an idiomatic expression?

The first and best choice would be to use a parallel idiom in the target language that gets across the same meaning and flavor as the original idiom. For instance, the expression Bhalla uses for his title, “I’m not hanging noodles on your ears,” means approximately the same thing as “I’m not pulling your leg.” Or, take the Arabic expression “heart-cooling. It basically means the same as “heart-warming” (in the mostly hot, dry Arab countries, heart-cooling is a more soothing image). “Live like a maggot in bacon” (German) could be translated into the American idiom “live high on the hog.”

But a parallel idiom may not always be available, especially if your translation isn’t directed at a particular locality. If you were translating “live like a maggot in bacon” into English for a more global audience, you might just say something like “live in luxury.” It’s not as colorful, but gets across the basic meaning and doesn’t stray far from the tone.

Some things really don’t translate and you just have to do the best you can to get across the basic meaning. To take an extreme example: in one old American Western shown on French television with subtitles, Jane Russell lets loose with a string of epithets beginning with “You yellow-bellied, lily-livered….” The subtitle in French was simply “Lache!” (Coward!), which may have left audiences scratching their heads.

The best artist

The prevalence and challenges of translating idioms is one of the reasons why we make sure that a translator regularly keeps up to date with both the languages they deal with as well as with the culture surrounding those languages. You need to be up on current usage in order to be familiar with both the meaning of idioms in the languages you are translating from and parallel usages in the languages you translate to.

Simply having an academic understanding of the language is not enough. Nor is growing up with the language enough, if you left the culture behind 20 years ago. Idioms and other usages are constantly changing, so if you don’t keep up to date, your language may sound stilted to those who are “living” the language. Translating an idiom by replacing it with an idiom that has gone out of style, may be no more meaningful to the target audience than doing a literal translation.

Just another reason that using a language services company, like MTM LinguaSoft, which screens translators for such factors, is the way to go.