Colourful, idiomatic expressions and turns of phrase are a natural part of speech and often so deeply embedded in our language that we don’t even realise just how much we use them. They can also be a bemusing and perplexing challenge when getting to grips with a new language or communicating across borders.

But how do idioms work in translation? What difficulties and opportunities do they pose, and what do translators need to keep in mind when translating idioms?

These are the questions we’re going to look at in today’s post on the blog!

Read on to learn more.

What are idiomatic expressions?

An idiom is a figurative and often amusing or colourful expression with a non-literal meaning. There are literally tens of thousands of idioms in the English language alone, some widely known and others considered to be more regional or obscure.

A couple of the most common examples include “don’t cry over spilt milk” (don’t worry about trifling matters), “hit the nail on the head” (you’re exactly right) and “hot potato” (a controversial topic).

So put simply, an idiom is a metaphorical phrase with an alternative meaning attached to it that native speakers implicitly understand.

For language learners and non-native speakers, though, idioms often raise eyebrows and may even prove a barrier to communication. They are also notorious for causing confusion in machine translations which often translate the literal meaning of the idiom rather than its figurative meaning.

Just consider some of these common idioms in different languages below and you’ll see what I mean:

Language Idiom Literal Translation English Equivalent
Swedish Bita I det sura äpplet Bite the sour apple Face the music / Bite the bullet
Spanish Ser pan comido To be eaten bread To be a piece of cake
Spanish Ser uña y carne To be nail and flesh Thick as thieves / Joined at the hip
Danish Tak for kaffe Thanks for the coffee Oh my gosh!
Danish At gå som katten om den varme grød To walk like a cat around the hot porridge To beat around the bush
Dutch Een broodje aap verhal A monkey sandwich story Urban legend / Old wives’ tale
German Um die Ecke denken To think around the corner To think outside the box
Italian Non mi rompere le scatole Don’t break my boxes To grind one’s gears / Get on someone’s nerves
Swedish Ingen ko på isen No cow on the ice The coast is clear
Swedish Att vara ute och cyklar To be out cycling To be confused / To have misunderstood

As you can imagine, it may well be possible to discern what is meant by some of these idioms in conversation. Biting sour apples and breaking boxes, for example; in most cases it should be clear from context what is actually meant. Thinking around the corner is perhaps even clearer than its English counterpart.

But others are a little more perplexing when taken literally.

Cats walking around porridge? Monkey sandwich stories? Now I feel like I must be the one who’s out cycling!

How are idiomatic expressions translated?

When a translator comes up against an idiom, typically they have three choices on how to deal with them:

  1. They can translate literally
  2. They can replace the idiom with another, similar idiom
  3. They can rephrase the text in a different way

Exactly which option is best will depend on the precise text in question and what the author is trying to convey.

Let’s take a closer look at the options.

Option One: Translate Literally

Thinking back to the idioms above, this might seem like a recipe for disaster, but actually it is often a viable option.

Many idioms actually exist across multiple languages, often because they have their root in a common language such as Latin or in widely spread texts such as the Bible or the works of celebrated writers like Cervantes or Shakespeare.

Particularly in the Internet age, neologisms coined online tend to spread rapidly and become absorbed into different languages.

Even when an idiom is not already established in the target language, translating literally may still be an option if the meaning is clear enough. In fact, plenty of common English phrases that we use nowadays are said to have entered the language in this way, such as the idiom “to take the bull by the horns” which is believed by some to have reached English through translations from Spanish.

Translating literally like this is known as calquing and it is a practice which enriches and expands our languages.

This approach is a good way to keep one foot in the world of the source text and might be particularly suitable in creative translations deeply rooted in the source culture.

Option Two: Replace with a Similar Idiom

This is usually the best option to choose when possible.

Replacing one idiom with another means we can get across the same meaning but without using bland or more direct language that might dilute the friendly, playful or informal rhythm of the original text.

Luckily, because our languages are so rich and inventive, there is normally at least one idiom that suits, although translators must take care to consider any subtle differences in meaning which might affect how the final text is understood and received.

One particular challenge in choosing alternative idioms arises when an expression has been chosen because not just for its meaning, but also because of its particular imagery and associations. Imagine, for example, a text advertising local, organic, fresh carrots grown in the fields of France. The author might use the wonderful French expression les carottes sont cuites! (the carrots are cooked) to mean a situation that cannot be changed.

This might quite possibly be the perfect phrase in a highly niche and super specific situation. In English, we could easily replace this with another idiom – “the goose is cooked”, for example – but we’d lose that reference to carrots which is perhaps the sole reason this particular phrase was ever included in the first place.

Translators face tricky choices in situations like this, and need to carefully consider the intention of the author in order to land on the right solution.

Option Three: Rephrase

Sometimes, due to the particular context or the precise idiom used, the translator may have little choice but to opt for a more literal rendering of an idiom. This might also be necessary in cases where equivalent idioms do not match in register – which is to say that the possible alternatives in the target language are too vulgar or too formal compared to the original.

Translators need to weigh up a whole range of different factors rather than simply reach for the first similar idiom that comes to mind, and sometimes it might be better to use no idiom at all than to use one that might confuse or offend.

In such cases, the translator can always compensate by looking for alternative places in the text to insert an idiom or to otherwise add colour to the language – it’s all about being creative and thinking around the corner – sorry, outside the box!

At COMUNICA, our translators have ample experience translating idioms and natural language, so get in touch if you would like to find out more.

And by the way, If you’re interested in learning some more unique and amusing idioms from around the world, take a look at these Spanish idiomatic expressions and French idiomatic expressions!