Why Translating Idioms Is Hard

July 19, 2023

In your pursuit of a fully localized marketing strategy that wins over native speakers across the world, have you ever attempted to translate idioms? We have, and the results were certainly interesting — but less than ideal. Here are some examples of English translations of Portuguese sayings:

You can take the little horse out of the rain.

It’s many years turning chickens.

Bread bread, cheese cheese.

And our personal favorite:

It is from little that you twist the cucumber.

By translating these idiomatic expressions literally, we end up with mashups of words that all make sense on their own, but which, together, make none. Word for word, the sentence sounds absurd in the target language. Yet, if we took a similar English expression — “as the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined” — your customers would probably know what we’re talking about.

Both expressions have different origins. The English one is an old proverb that stems from Alexander Pope’s Epistles to Several Persons, and the Portuguese one is related to the process of planting cucumbers, in which the farmer needs to pinch out the growing tips from the plants while the fruits are developing. However different their origin, their meaning is the same: Our actions as adults are defined by behaviors learned during childhood.

An idiom is, by definition, “a group of words in a fixed order that has a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own,” making them particularly tricky subjects for translators to work with.

In this case, there is an alternative idiomatic expression in English that conveys the same message as the one in the source language. But such phrases are, more often than not, difficult to translate and require not only an extensive knowledge of the language itself, but also of the cultural specifics that make their way into it.

You are what you eat

Language isn’t free of influences from other parts of our lives. Rather, it goes hand-in-hand with its speakers’ culture. Idioms and other types of figurative languages, in particular, are shaped by cultural elements such as the religious beliefs, superstitions, social conventions, historical and geographical environments of the people of different groups and countries.

Even the food we eat influences the way we express certain ideas. In an article published in the Canadian Center of Science and Education’s Journal of English Language Teaching, Chunli Yang explains the differences between so-called “diet idioms” in Western, English-speaking countries and China.

In Western nations, people traditionally eat more beef and dairy products and favor carbohydrates in the form of bread and potatoes. On the other hand, in China, rice is the main food staple, along with other locally common ingredients such as tofu and lotus root. As a result, food-related idioms from different parts of the world mirror this diversity.

In her article, Yang mentions English idioms containing the word potato. There are hot potatoes, big potatoes, and couch potatoes — none of which have anything to do with the root vegetable.

In contrast, there are a number of Chinese idioms which contain the symbol for rice — mi. Qiao fu nan wei wu mi zhi chui, for example, translates literally into the cleverest housewife cannot cook a meal without rice. Tofu also makes an appearance, for instance in the expression dao zi zui, dou fu xin, or, in English, having a knife mouth but a heart of tofu.

By translating either of these idioms word by word into the other language, without any knowledge of their cultural context or origin, you would probably not be able to grasp their meaning. Some authors, such as Dayan Liu, go as far as to say that “for truly expert translating, biculturalism matters even more than bilingualism.”

Linguistic knowledge is essential to finding the right words in the target language, but it’s cultural knowledge that allows readers to make meaning of the whole sentence. It’s what helps the translator understand that a hot potato is a problem that’s difficult to solve, that a big potato is an important person, and that a couch potato refers to someone who’s typically sedentary and spends a lot of time in front of the TV. This last idiom is, in fact, closely related to the advent of TV in the US in the 1970s, and at the time, the newly discovered activity of eating chips while watching TV.

This way, the translator is also able to find the best expression to convey the same meaning in the target language. The Chinese expression about the housewife and the rice isn’t actually about rice, but it means that, no matter how skilled you are, you can’t make or build something without the necessary tools and materials. Or, as one would say in English, you can’t make bricks without straw.

By saying that someone has a heart of tofu, the Chinese don’t mean to say a person’s heart is made of soybean curds. Instead, they’re talking about someone who has a sharp tongue but a soft heart, an all-bark-and-no-bite sort of individual. That’s the crux of the issue: Idioms can’t be conveyed with literal translations, but need careful localization.

Playing by the rules

Finding an equivalent idiom in the language you’re translating a text into is usually the best way to go about it. Yet there are times when a suitable idiom in the target language doesn’t immediately come to mind or doesn’t necessarily fit into the surrounding text, and others where there isn’t an equivalent at all.

Each situation poses different challenges that might make the task seem daunting or impossible. But there are rules and strategies defined by several experts that can ease the process.

Alan Duff, the author of Translation, suggests sticking to a few basic rules when translating idioms. The first is, obviously, not to translate the idiom literally if it makes no sense in the target language. The translator should also keep in mind that a wordplay in one language might not be translatable into another wordplay in a different language. It’s more important to convey the meaning rather than the words. And finally, if a certain idiomatic image is very powerful, it’s preferable to keep it in its original language, giving an approximate translation in brackets or as a footnote.

Mona Baker, Director of the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester and author of the book In Other Words, also came up with a couple of ground strategies she believes can help translators deal with idiomatic expressions.

She suggests, for one, using an idiom of “similar meaning but dissimilar form,” which is to say finding an idiom in the target language that conveys the same meaning as the source or has the same connotations, but through different words. Much like the examples of the “diet idioms” in Chinese and English.

Then there’s translation by paraphrase, which is the most common way of translating an idiom when there’s no match in the target language, or when the use of an idiom wouldn’t make sense in the context of the translated text. In this case, the translator conveys the message and meaning of the idiom in a non-figurative way.

Idioms can be left out of the translation altogether. Baker explains that these expressions might be omitted in cases where the idiom “has no close match in the target language, its meaning cannot be easily paraphrased, or for stylistic reasons.”

And occasionally, translators will come across idioms that have a near-exact match in both languages.

Sharing is caring

As it turns out, there are, in fact, quite a few idiomatic phrases that are virtually the same across different languages. But given the cultural differences between the groups of people that speak the 7000 different human languages, how could this come to be?

Some linguists believe that, despite having distinct cultural backgrounds, humans share common experiences, making us naturally hardwired to turn real-life encounters and situations into the same figurative constructions. This theory of “spontaneous metaphorization” is linked to the theory of polygenesis — the belief that human languages evolved independently of one another.

On the contrary, linguists who stand behind monogenesis as the explanation for language evolution from a single ancestral language also believe that to be the reason why the same idiom can be found across multiple languages.

However, the most probable reason for this phenomenon is “common narrative tradition,” as explained by Elisabeth Piirainen in her book Widespread Idioms in Europe and Beyond. For example, the expression to shed crocodile tears dates back to a collection of fables in Sanskrit from the third century, the Panchatantra, with which Aesop’s Fables share a lot of similarities. As such, the idiom can be found in 45 European languages (derramar lágrimas de cocodrilo in Spanish, verser des larmes de crocodile in French), as well as in Arabic, Swahili, Persian, various Indian languages, and Chinese, among others.

Google Translate and idioms = Water and oil?

Now that we’ve explored the cultural nuances behind idioms — and how complex it can be to capture the meaning of fixed expressions in foreign languages — it’s easier to see why generic machine translation tools, such as Google Translate, still fail in the translation of idioms.

That’s because such solutions have no contextual knowledge or understanding of the source text: They simply translate individual words into the target language, following none of the translation strategies that would preserve the idiom’s intended meaning. For example, the Italian idiom avere una faccia di bronzo, translated by Google, becomes to have a bronze face.

However, this is only the literal meaning. The actual meaning is to be brazen — or, if we wanted to use a similar idiom, to be as bold as brass.

This is why leading companies across the world still choose to rely on the support of a trusted translation company — so they can avoid falling flat on their faces (bronze or otherwise). 

At Unbabel, our AI-driven translation solution is continuously learning from and fine-tuned by professional translators and native speakers, who ensure the full meaning of our clients’ messaging is preserved in the target text. Want to put our pipelines to the test? Take advantage of our free trial today.

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