How to Translate Idioms
Translation Techniques: How to Translate Idioms
Idioms are popular expressions that explain something by using examples and figures of speech. I like them because it’s something that Google Translate will never be able to cope with. They still belong exclusively to human communication. But their beauty is also their limit: they are expressions of each culture, sometimes specific to a tiny area or a city only. They are culturally-bound, that is why it is so hard to export them to another context, because the translator needs to find other cultural references. As an anthropologist, I love them, but as a translator, they are a “pain in the neck” (which is of course an idiom itself). So how to translate idioms?
Searching online I found some interesting articles about how to translate idioms:
In my experience, one of the most accurate lists of strategies to translate idioms can be found in the book “In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation“ by Mona Baker.
I believe if you are a student starting a translation course at university you will have to study this book, since it is in most university translation programmes. The book gathers all the different bits and pieces about translation techniques and organizes them in a structured way, so that you can scroll down an organized list and pick the best strategy for each situation. If you need a quick answer to what strategy to use to translate idioms, just go directly to the page 75, “The translation of idioms: strategies”.
The book offers strategies to deal with other kinds of non-equivalences, such as non-equivalences at a word-level, above word level, grammatical non-equivalences and so on.
These are some techniques you can use to handle the translation of an idiom:
- 1. Try to find an idiom in the target language (just to remind you, Target Language, or TL, is the language you’re translating into) which uses the same words, the same structure and has the same exact meaning. This is the top notch solution, but you often will not find it.
- 2. Try to find an idiom in your language which uses different words, but has the same structure and the same exact meaning
- 3. Try to find an idiom in your language that has different words, different structure but the same exact meaning
- 4. Try to find an idiom in your language that has different words, different structure and a slightly different meaning, and complete it with a short explanation
|It’s a pain in the neck||È una spina nel fianco|
|A leopard can’t change its spots||Il lupo perde il pelo ma non il vizio|
|A slap on the wrist||Un colpo basso|
|All bark and no bite||Can che abbaia non morde|
How do you find these idioms? The only real solution is to ask to a native speaker. Don’t try to use an automatic translation tool; the results will be very funny, sometimes embarrassing.
If you are an Italian translator working on a text from English into Italian and come across an English idiom, you can try to grasp the meaning by looking it up to the internet, using some of these free resources:
But my suggestion is to find an English native speaker who can explain the meaning to you. Then, once you get the meaning you’ll probably find in your memory a similar idiom in Italian. Alternatively, you can always ask your grandma, who is usually an endless source of idioms!