Going down in flames: translating idioms

December 22, 2020 by Alison Tunley

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Going down in flames: translating idioms

Translating idioms is one of the hardest challenges a translator will face. Often there is no direct equivalent in the target language, or you may find the most obvious alternative simply does not work in the relevant context. I wrote previously in this blog about the care needed when deploying idioms. I reviewed a translation which described a shoe with an ingenious design feature as “having something up its sleeve”.
A food translation I completed recently was sprinkled with idiomatic usages. For example, the phrase “Salz in der Suppe” (literally ‘salt in the soup’), meaning to add the finishing touch to something, or the final addition that makes something perfect. As luck would have it, English has a couple of culinary themed equivalent sayings in the “icing on the cake” or “cherry on the cake”. But this particular passage was written to emphasise the importance of seasonings, and it was vital not to lose the “salt” reference. In the end, I opted for the phrase “worth their salt”. The meaning is slightly different, suggesting “being good at your job” or “competent”, but it was close enough while also retaining the all-important condiment reference.

Another passage used the saying “Butter bei die Fische” (literally ‘butter with the fish’), meaning to get to the heart of something, or cut to the chase. Most of the obvious relevant English idioms lose the food reference. I came up with a couple of options offering tenuous culinary links: “to boil something down” or “put something in a nutshell”. But neither seemed ideal. Dictionaries are not much help for translating idioms in this kind of situation. Googling food idioms can be more productive. But ultimately a flash of inspiration is often required, and finally I came up with “Let’s talk turkey”, which conveys the sense of “getting to the point” and continues the food theme.

Sometimes contorting the translated idiom to meet your requirements is just too difficult and abandoning the whole thing is better than shoehorning in a clunky idiom or awkward phrasing. And while we are thinking about idioms, a favourite game for the bilingual speaker is to translate them literally for humorous effect. I’ve been on a futile solo mission to introduce “He hasn’t got all his cups in the cupboard” into the English language (from the German “Er hat nicht alle Tassen im Schrank” aka “He’s lost his marbles”). And the TED translation team came up with their own list of untranslatable idioms which could inspire you to do the same (see sources).
Finally, even when just crossing borders, there can be subtle differences in translating idioms. It took me a few moments to realise that while cats in Germany have seven lives “Katzen haben sieben Leben”, felines in the UK have a couple more to spare with nine.


40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally

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