Translating Idioms & Preserving Their Meaning

Translating Idioms & Preserving Their Meaning

The world of translations is full of difficulties, intricate nuances that have to be taken into account, and rules that you should follow if you want to produce a result that makes sense. Translating idioms falls into this category. An idiom is an expression with a fixed meaning composed of words that aren’t semantically related to each other. It can look like a word soup to people who don’t know what it means, and naturally, it is usually next to impossible to translate it by using a word-by-word approach. Each culture has a different mindset, so they adapt idioms in accordance with it. In turn, it has a number of relevant impacts on the process of their translation.

Why Idiom Translation Differs From Everything You Know

Usual texts don’t require much creative input. You simply translate sentences by converting them from one language into another, without making any drastic changes. Sometimes localization is needed — it’s a form of adaptation that helps preserve the tone as well as other intricacies of the original, such as humor or sarcasm. When you ask for standard English or German document translation services, you are concerned with the accuracy of a translation — that’s it. With idioms, everything is different.

Because of how unique they all are, the only possible way to translate idioms in other languages entails finding their appropriate equivalent. And here is where the problems start: to be efficient in this, you have to understand what the target culture considers fitting, the expressions they relate to most, and of course, you still have to convey the meaning properly, without changing its essence. It’s not easy because a simple knowledge of a language isn’t enough. It’s not something most people expect when they decide to do a translation. The complexity of idioms places them in one of the toughest translation categories.

Three Crucial Steps in the Translation of Idioms

Fortunately, there is a lot of info available on the topic of idiom translations. Three steps can be distinguished as most helpful — they’ve been proposed by professional translators who spoke from their personal experience. Here they are.

  • Select an idiom. Sometimes people struggle with identifying an idiom in a text. They confuse it with a joke because they fail to understand the humor; they mix it up with phrasal verbs because they misunderstand the difference between them, and so on. So first, make sure that what you are seeking to translate is indeed an idiom. Check it online if you need or ask someone who could help.
  • Figure out its meaning. Remember: context matters. It’s everything in idiomatic translation, so try to understand what the sentence is about and what role the idiom plays in it even if it is unfamiliar to you. Again, use the Internet for assistance. When you complete this step, you can finally move on to the translation itself.
  • Look for an alternative option in the language you target. Google the available variants. If you are translating from English to Korean, be sure to check Korean options and then translate them back into English. They have to match, no matter what combination you use. If you are still unsure you made the right choice, search through relevant forums, or contact professional Korean translation companies, asking them for a piece of advice.

Idiom Translation Tool: Top 5 Strategies You Could Apply

Every translator should be aware of how to work with idioms. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it for yourself or if it’s a task you were assigned to complete — the quality must be solid. Otherwise, there is no point in even starting. Take a look at the following five strategies aimed at facilitating your work.

  • Build cultural link with a target language. Discover at least some basic facts about a target culture. For example, if the meaning of your idiom is connected with the rain, look into what beliefs a specific population has about it. Do most of them like rain or are they annoyed by it? It could help.
  • Recreate the context. Stay true to the context — don’t invent something that would totally negate the meaning of the original. Express it in whatever way you can, but keep it similar.
  • Turn the idiom into a common phrase while mirroring its nature. There are plenty of English idioms that don't translate well. If this is your case, don’t worry! Just make certain you understand the original idiom and the context around it and come up with a phrase that reflects it. It doesn’t have to be a fixed expression but it has to be clear to your audience.
  • Switch between idioms. Sometimes you might find an idiom that is only partly similar in meaning to the one you work with. If it doesn’t change the context, go right ahead and use it.
  • Come up with your own unique option. Who’s to say you cannot create your own expressions? Sure, if it’s something not set, you can’t present a word soup and expect others to understand it, but you can make it as clear as possible. Use your creative mind and makeup something that would reflect the idiom while also being refreshing in the eyes of your readers.

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Learning on a Practical Example

Let’s see how to translate idioms in a specific example. One of the curious English expressions is, “It's raining cats and dogs.” It sounds fun, but is it equally fun in all languages? Not necessarily since every culture focuses on a unique aspect of an idiom. But it has the same exaggerated meaning and the equally strange way of being expressed, which is the most important part of such translation.





  Sataa ämmiä äkeet selässä.

  It's raining old women with harrows on their backs.


  Il pleut comme vache qui pisse.

  It's raining like a cow is pissing.


  Льет, как из ведра.

  Pouring as if out of a bucket.


  Está chovendo canivetes.

  It's raining pocketknives.


  Está lloviendo a torrentes.

  It’s pouring rain.


  Piove a catinelle.

  It's raining from buckets.


  Het regent pijpenstelen.

  It's raining stems of a pipe.


  Es regnet wie aus Kübeln.

  It's raining like out of tubs.


  Bardaktan boşanırcasına yağmak.

  It rains as if it is pouring from a glass.


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Helpful Resources for Getting You a Correct Translation

There are lots of idioms that are hard to translate. If you are frustrated by a specific task — for instance, as you’re adapting a Spanish idiom into English, you could always hire Spanish to English translation services. At the same time, if you are determined to do it yourself, you could access various sources that seek to assist you. Here are some of them.

1) The Idioms. This is a great site for those interested in learning English idioms. All you have to do is start typing the expression that you selected or look through the available list.

2) Idioms Online. Here, you are offered to pick any letter of the English alphabet. When you do, you’ll see the list with options and meanings.

3) Cambridge Dictionary. This source could help you understand idiomatic equivalence in several languages. Just choose the combination you need.

4) The Free Dictionary. Focused on English studying, this is a large resource with multiple options. Type in your request and choose what you require.

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Be Accurate and Creative & Succeed in Translations of Idioms

are a unique phenomenon that should be treated carefully. Preserve their essence but don’t limit yourself to the words used in the original language. Look for options since many of them have already been devised for you; show your own creativity if there is a lack of translated idioms you require. Consider contacting the firms marketing their services if you want assistance or use one of the free online sources — these days, help can be found everywhere. Remember that you are not alone: others have faced and resolved the same difficulties, so you can do it as well!

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