Language in focus- Idiom

February 3, 2016 by Alison Tunley

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What is translation? The Oxford dictionary defines the term as: “A written rendering of the meaning of a word or text in another language”. I think this definition captures the true essence of translation; i.e. not simply replacing one word in one language with the exact equivalent in another, but capturing the meaning of a text and rendering it in a comprehensible fashion into the target language.

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Ten or so years ago I decided to go back to university and complete an MA in Translation and Interpreting. At the time, I thought it would be a good chance to get my teeth into translating all kinds of texts and putting an official ‘stamp’ on my career as a linguist. But, I was in for so much more than that! Not only did I get to practice different types of translation (medical, business, financial, marketing etc) I delved into the world of translation theory. Not only did I learn vast amounts of vocabulary regarding different types of concrete, tunnel boring machines, diseases and tourism, but I learned the reasons for choosing certain words over others and techniques to get the best rendition of meaning possible.

 

In this series of articles I’ll be sharing some of the difficulties translators face when translating a text from one language into another.

 

Idiom (definition: a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own)

 

Idiomatic phrases are what set languages apart. If you are fluent enough in a language to know idiomatic expressions then, I would say, you’re close to native level. Knowing certain turns of phrase (e.g. over the moon, at the drop of a hat, beat around the bush etc.) marks your deeper understanding of a language and culture.

 

For a translator, idioms can be a nightmare. If you’re not familiar with the phrase in question you could fall into a trap of translating it word for word. For example (and I’ll be drawing on my own language knowledge here):

 

“Faire la grasse matinée” would be “Make the fat morning” (It actually means to have a lie in)

“Tomber dans les pommes” would be “To fall into the apples” (rather than to faint)

 

“Se casser la tête” would be “To break one’s head” (and not ‘to go to a lot of trouble’)

 

Translating such turns of phrase incorrectly could leave the reader highly confused and amused! As such, a translator learns to recognize words or phrases that don’t fit into the context as idiom and can then deal with them in a number of ways.

  • Finding an equivalent idiom in the target language (e.g. C’est la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase/ the straw that broke the camel’s back) or
  • Paraphrasing; in order to explain what the original author was trying to say
  • Omission; deciding to leave out the idiomatic reference completely especially if there is no adequate and concise way to render the meaning (though omission in itself poses further problems)

 

Depending on the text, audience and register the translator would make the best choice available to him or her whilst trying to remain faithful to the source text and author’s intention.

 

What are your favourite idioms? Are there any that are simply ‘untranslatable’?

 

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