If you ask the average translator one figure of speech they struggle with, they will tell you that idioms translation is high on the list. Idioms are everyday expressions used to convey a message without using the proper words one would normally use. Expressions like “kicked the bucket,” “out of the blue,” and “hit the nail on the head” are common expressions used in the English language.
Other languages have their own expressions that may mean something different in English or make no sense at all. This is a challenge many translators face when dealing with expressions in an original text that will make no sense if they are translated word for word as they are into a new language.
The root of idioms
Idioms are deeply rooted and influenced by human culture, religion, history, values, and even ideology. Take these deeply rooted factors away, and many of the expressions we use will not make sense. In the same vein, an expression may make sense to speakers of a particular language but make little or no sense to foreign speakers, even if the words are translated.
Furthermore, idioms may have superficial or literal meanings depending on the words used. So while native speakers of the language will understand whether an idiom should be understood literally or not, a foreign speaker without a deep rooted understanding of the language will not understand whether to take the expression literally or figuratively.
Idioms with sister equivalent
Other challenges many translators have with the translation of idioms are idioms that have equivalents. This is common in many Indo-European languages, where you find two different expressions that have the same meanings. Deciding on the right expression to use can be a little tricky.
Furthermore, some idioms are universally understood among international speakers of the same language, like the examples used at the start of this article, while others are not.
So as a translator working on a document to be translated into English, for instance, knowing which idiom to use that will appeal to a wider audience is a decision you will have to make. Use the right one, and your wider audience will understand it; use the wrong one, and only a limited section will. This is common with some idioms understood by the general English speaking world and idioms understood by only regional speakers in countries like the US or Britain.
Idioms translation strategy to adopt when translating to a wider audience
If you are translating a document for a wider audience and you have no choice but to use idioms expressed in the original text, here are helpful strategies to adopt.
Use widely accepted idioms
If you have to use an idiom that will convey the same meaning as it appears in the original text, it is best to use a widely accepted idiom that the wider audience will understand. This should be your strategy, even if the document is for a regional audience.
This approach holds value for the future In case there is a need for the document to be published to a wider audience. Since you have used a widely understood variant that conveys the same meaning, there won’t be any need to make wholesale changes to the text.
Use a similar idiom
Another way to use idioms translation is to use a similar idiom to the target language. This strategy should only be adopted if there isn’t a widely accepted idiom to use as a substitute. The structure may be different from the source document, but as long as it conveys the same message, it should not be a problem.
Another strategy is to paraphrase it figuratively, similar to the original text. This will help preserve the original meaning if there isn’t an idiom equivalent you can use. This should only be a last resort if other strategies will not work.
The last strategy is to omit the idiom entirely in the translation if the above three strategies do not work. Omitting an entire idiomatic expression may not alter the message in any way; this is because idioms only amplify the message already described in a previous sentence. Rather than ruin your work with the wrong words that make no sense, it is best to just do away with the idiom.
At Circle Translations, we understand the importance of idioms translation and how to use them properly in translated texts. Our language experts will not only help with your text translation but will also polish it with the right idioms necessary to increase engagement value.