Why is Idiom Translation Challenging?

Why is Idiom Translation Challenging?
Beth Worthy

Beth Worthy


Translation involves more than simply substituting a word in one language for another.

If this was the case, then all companies would be using automatic translation software, instead of using human-based translation services.

In translation, there are grammar rules to be followed to preserve the meaning of the original content.

Translators that are native speakers of the target language (the language that you’re translating to) can easily adhere to grammar rules.

However, the same cannot be said about idioms.

Idiomatic Translation

Idioms refer to a group of words that convey a different meaning from their perceived literal meaning. For example, you are familiar with the phrase, “it is raining cats and dogs”.

We know this does not mean that it actually rained cats and dogs. This idiom is well known among English speakers that it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow when spoken or used in a piece or writing.

We understand the idiom because we are English speakers and its meaning is woven in our cultural understanding of the language.

However, when it comes to translating the idiom to another language, things can get tricky.

Translating the idiom is not a problem but conveying its intended meaning is the challenge.

For example, when directly translated to Spanish, the idiom would read, Esta lloviendo gatos y perros. This sentence won’t make sense to a Spanish native speaker.

To translate the idiom to Spanish and retain its meaning, you need to have deep cultural knowledge of Spanish speakers.

“It’s raining cats and dogs” is an idiom meant to express heavy rainfall.

Spanish speakers have an equivalent expression for the idiom: Esta lloviendo sapos y culebras, which literally translates to “it’s raining cats and snakes”.

Also Read: Overcoming the Challenges of Literary Translation

The Challenges of Translating Idioms

Now that you know the vocab switch won’t cut it always in transcription, how do you handle idioms?

When you come across an idiom in a transcription project, there are a number of difficulties you will have to overcome.

i) Understand the cultural connection

First, you have to understand the cultural connection of the expression. Use the correct strategy to properly translate idioms from a source language.

Moreover, you should understand the different functions of an idiom in the source and target language. What are its characteristics?

ii) Unique context

The context of the idiom, when used in the target language, may be different than in the source language.

Therefore, ensure that the idiom makes sense both in the literal and idiomatic senses simultaneously.

One of the ways of doing this is by using equivalent idioms found in the target language. Below are some examples of English idioms and their Spanish equivalents:

English idiom: Put the cart before the horse

Spanish equivalent: Empezar la casa por el tejado (Literal translation: to start the house by the roof)

English idiom: You’re pulling my leg

Spanish equivalent: Me estás tomando el pelo (Literal translation: you are taking my hair)

English idiom: To turn beetroot red

Spanish equivalent: Ponerse como un tomate (Literal translation: to change into a tomato)

From the examples above, it is clear that you need in-depth knowledge of Spanish if you are to produce a convincing, authentic translation.

iii) Hard to convey meaning

If the idiom used in the target language is not the same as that of the source language, finding the right words to use to convey the proper meaning can be quite challenging.

For example, when translating the idiom “poke your nose”, the translation must communicate the act of inquisitiveness and not poking a finger into someone’s nose.

Also Read: Why Automated Translation Is a Bad Business Choice

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How to Handle Idiom Translations

While translating idioms is a big challenge, clients still need their projects done and their messages delivered to their foreign language speakers without being compromised.

So, how do you handle idiom translations?

Here are some tips for translating an idiom:

  • Try to find an equivalent idiom that is used in the target language. The idioms could use the same words, structure, or meaning. This is often the best solution. However, you are not likely to find many idiom alternatives for the target language.
  • Look for an idiom in the target language that has different words but follows the same structure and provides the same meaning.
  • Look for an idiom that may have different words and structure but provides the same meaning.
  • Look for an idiom in the target language that has a different structure, words, and a slightly different meaning, and then accompany it with a short explanation.

To find these idioms, you will have to ask a native speaker!

Effective translation requires a translator to be fluent in the languages he or she is translating.

Apart from this, the professional needs to understand the grammar rules and cultural communication norms of the target audience that he or she is translating for.

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Beth Worthy

Beth Worthy

Beth Worthy is the Cofounder & President of GMR Transcription Services, Inc., a California-based company that has been providing accurate and fast transcription services since 2004. She has enjoyed nearly ten years of success at GMR, playing a pivotal role in the company's growth. Under Beth's leadership, GMR Transcription doubled its sales within two years, earning recognition as one of the OC Business Journal's fastest-growing private companies. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two kids.