How to Translate Idioms

Translation Techniques: How to Translate Idioms


How to translate idiomsIdioms 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 “cultural-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: (a very funny article based on the book Italian Idioms (Barron’s Foreign Language Guides)


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 doesn’t really say anything new, it just gathers all the different bits of information 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.

I’ll give you a few examples of how you can actually handle the translation of an idiom:

  1. 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. 2. Try to find an idiom in your language which uses different words, but has the same structure and the same exact meaning
  3. 3. Try to find an idiom in your language that has different words, different structure but the same exact meaning
  4. 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</>
English Italian
It’s a pain in the neck E` una spina nel fianco
A leopard cant’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!


Other Sources:

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Leave a Reply

  1. Hi Chiara, thanks for the interesting links.

    Just one doubt: aren’t you over-complicating things a bit? A good bilingual dictionary will often provide a direct equivalent straight away.

    For “pain in the neck”, Zanichelli/Ragazzini give us
    4 (fam., = pain in the neck) scocciatura; rottura (di scatole) (pop.); scocciatore; rompiscatole

    While WOW – The Word on Words provides
    pain in the neck loc. s. 1 persona noiosa o seccante, scocciatore, ropiscatole (..) 2 seccatura o contrarietà; scocciatura; rottura

    Arguably, these then have to be nuanced according to context -like you did when you went for una spina nel fianco/thorn in one’s side instead of a direct equivalent- but I would still recommend them as a starting point before (non specialized) speakers :)

    • Hi Alain, thanks for your comment and well spotted, I have a tendency to over-complicate things, ask my poor boyfriend ;)
      No seriously, languages evolve so rapidly that an expression can become old in few years. Dictionaries do not evolve at the same pace, that’s why I don’t always trust them.

      I still remeber when I was studying German in high school, using dictionaries and books (about 10 years ago, gosh!)
      Then I finally went to Germany with my class, and the local students we met said that we were speaking correctly, but using the language of XIX century! Ahahah..That’s the risk when someone relies only on dictionaries! ;)

      • Indeed, I think that one of the most useful things a translator can do is to always double check their sources.

        This said, I am just bemused by this general disdain for bilingual dictionaries among my colleagues. Sure, an old copy of a learner’s dictionary like Garzanti won’t be of much help for a translator, but I find Ragazzini and Picchi to be great tools, especially for double checking the most important source of all: ourselves! :)

        • Alain, if you consider yourself to be “the most important source of all” you must be truly bilingual.
          In my dictionary (ARCS) I enter idioms as multi-word-units or collocations.
          The German equivalents of the idiom “pain in the neck” are: eine Person, die einem auf den Geist/ Wecker geht; Nervensäge; Langweiler; and the English synonyms are: headache, pain in the arse/ ass, (crashing) bore, perfect bore, pest, nuisance, drip, pill, flat tire, wet blanket, slowcoach.
          The translator should know which TG idiom fits best, knowing the differences of the connotations

      • Chiara, is reads as if you discovered idioms yesterday :-)

        > No seriously, languages evolve so rapidly that an expression can become old in few years. Dictionaries do not evolve at the same pace, that’s why I don’t always trust them.

        They do. But you have the greatest ever corpus at hand to check: Google search in the respective language. NOT translate.googe. Google search. The 21 century all right.

        And your own being bilingual. NOT B1, B2, C1 or C2. None of these fancy black belts.
        JUST bilingual. Full stop.

  2. « I like idioms because it’s something that Google Translate will never be able to cope with ».

    Errr… Actually that’s not true.

    Google Translate works with statistics. So while its algorythm has less chances to find a recurrent translation pattern that may suit a long string of characters, it is likely to find patterns that suit short strings of characters.

    Yes, « a piece of cake » is likely to result in « un morceau de gâteau » in French, because they are more literal French translations of this English string of characters within Google’s corpus.

    Indeed, both English speakers and French speakers eat pieces of cake.

    However, very few English speakers actually work « against the clock » – unless of course they have installed their desk right against the walls of Big Ben.

    Therefore, it is likely that most occurrences of this string of characters in Google’s corpus are expressed as an idiom, which means their translation will necessarily be idiomatic and the machine is likely to get it right.

    What most translators fail to understand is that Google Translate DOES NOT UNDERSTAND anything at all.

    Google Translate is a machine. Machines cannot tell the difference between idioms and literality. Google doesn’t deal with meaning, it deals with statistics, with recurrence, with patterns.

    Therefore, what Google translate will never be able to cope with, is human creativity, that is our ability to understand each other even though language use and languages more generally never stop to evolve – whether the Académie française likes it or not ☺

    • Well then, change the name Google Translate to something that indeed reflects the machine-like-quality of the ‘conversions’ Google does from one language to another.

      When humans use the word translate, they mean translate, and NO software program is in existence with the ability to translate without loosing idiomatic-content.

      Until then, BTW, human-like-communication between humans and robots is just a dream!

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