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The Challenges We Face When Translating Idioms

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The Challenges We Face When Translating Idioms

Contrary to popular belief, translating a piece of text into another language isn’t just a matter of swapping each word for another. If this were the case, it would be a much easier job! In reality, those doing this work face difficulties in translation every day that cannot be solved simply by looking up a word in the dictionary.

What are the problems of translation?

Here are just a few of the challenges that come with translating text:

Grammatical differences: Each language has its own structure, and its own set of grammatical rules. For instance, in Arabic, the subject pronouns are contained within conjugated verbs. This makes English-Arabic translation extremely challenging.

Differences in pronoun use: Some languages, such as German, have gendered pronouns for people, animals, and objects. On the other hand, Finnish, Polish, and Chinese use the same word for “he” and “she.” Translators need to be sure that the intended audience will understand who is speaking or acting when they read the translated text.

Lexical-semantic problems: Some words do not have an equivalent in another language. It is the job of a translator to decide how best to use words available to them in conveying their intended meaning.

One of the other problems in translation of language is idiomatic translation.

What is idiomatic translation?

An idiom is a group of words that, when read or spoken in a particular way, conveys a meaning that can’t be discerned from the individual words themselves. For instance, “a hot potato,” “at the drop of a hat,” and “back to the drawing board” are all popular idioms in the English language.  

Because idioms have meanings greater than the sum of their parts, working with them is one of the most frequently encountered problems faced by translators during translation.  

A translator will also require a degree of cultural knowledge if they are to transpose them to another language, because idioms usually uphold a deep-seated societal bias or piece of popular wisdom that may be hard or impossible to translate.

Examples: English idioms translated into Spanish

To understand why idioms need handling with care during translation, let’s look at how a translator might translate English idioms into Spanish. Here are a few common instances:

1. “Putting the cart before the horse.”

An English speaker would use this term to suggest that someone was doing something in an illogical sequence. In Spanish, the equivalent term is Empezar la casa por el tejado,” which literally means, “to start the house by the roof.” 

2. “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

In English, this expression refers to a heavy rain shower. If you were to translate this phrase literally for a Spanish audience, they would be baffled. Speakers of Spanish use another idiom: “‘Esta lloviendo Sapos y culebras,” or “It is raining frogs and snakes.”

3. “You’re pulling my leg!”

In English, to pull someone’s leg is to trick or make fun of them. As a literal translation, this would not make much sense to a Spanish speaker. They have a different expression: “Tomar el pelo,” which means “to take the hair.” “Me estás tomando el pelo” translates as “You’re taking my hair,” the equivalent of “You’re pulling my leg.”

4. “To turn beetroot red.”

In English, we say “red as a beet” to indicate embarrassment. The Spanish equivalent is “Ponerse como un tomate,” which translated literally means “To change into a tomato” and is colloquially used as an expression meaning “to be blushing.”

These examples prove that a translator needs to have an in-depth knowledge of a language if they are to produce a convincing, authentic translation. Translation soon becomes confusing if you aren’t familiar with both your original and target language, so always hire a professional for your translation needs.