Monday, 25 June 2012

Translating Idioms-A Real Linguist's Challenge

Guest Post by Carmen Marra

Anybody with an understanding of the translation field and of what the translating process implies, is well aware of the difficulties which are to be faced when trying to translate idioms. Translating means not only reading and understanding the literal meaning of the words of the source language, but also trying to convey a meaningful message. Behind every national language and every single country, there is a different culture and that is the reason why most of the times it is impossible to translate word by word, especially when it comes to idioms.

Idioms are very complex expressions and this makes them especially difficult to translate into another language as they do not necessarily have an equivalent. Like metaphors, idioms are phrases which have cultural meaning independent of the words that make them up. There is nothing in the words per se that conveys the meaning, but instead it is based on a certain cultural knowledge shared by some people. As idioms are culture-bound, they are specific to a particular culture and background and their meaning is always more metaphorical than literal.  You therefore need to understand what idea the idiom carries in order to find the closest equivalent in the target language.
So, how do you translate idioms?
Unfortunately there is not a universal rule, but using a good dictionary, doing some research on internet or even better asking a native speaker could be helpful. I am an Italian translator who specialises in Italian Translations and I am going to provide you with some examples in both English and Italian.
Let’s take into consideration the English idiom “once in a blue moon”.  It describes the idea of something which happens very rarely.  Before taking into the account the possible Italian equivalent, let me explain shortly the origin of this expression. After conducting some research on Internet, I found that the “blue moon” expression with the ‘very rarely’ expression is old and it dates back to medieval England.
Actually, very occasionally the moon appears to be blue and this happens after a volcanic eruption, when the dust particles diffract the red light, making the moon appear bluish. If I translated the expression literally into Italian, people would probably look at me as if I was crazy. The closest Italian idiom to the English one with the same meaning is “ad ogni morte di papa” which makes reference to the death of the Pope. As Popes usually stay in power for a long time, their death is an event which occurs rarely.
Here are few more examples of English idioms and their closest equivalents in Italian. I will also provide a literal translation, just to show the differences as they are often amusing.

ENG:    To knock on woods                 Literal Translation         Bussare sul legno

IT:         Toccare ferro                           Literal Translation         To touch iron

ENG:    To drink like a fish                   Literal Translation         Bere come un pesce

IT:         Bere come una spugna          Literal translation          To Drink like a sponge

ENG:    To sleep like a log                    Literal Translation         Dormire come un tronco

IT:         Dormire come un ghiro         Literal translation          To sleep like a dormouse

As a conclusion, I would say that it is impossible to translate idioms accurately without a good knowledge of the cultural background they are linked to. It takes more than just to know words to be a real linguist…

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