Translating Idioms And Colloquialisms: Tips For Translators

Written by Mo Stone

You’re hard at work translating a text, when all of a sudden you run across an idiom. Most translators agree that colloquialisms and cultural sayings are one of the hardest parts of the job, as they don’t always translate easily from one language or culture to the next. What do you do? We’ve compiled some tips to help make your next translation job a little easier.

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels

What are Idioms and Colloquialisms?

An idiom can be defined as “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.” In other words, these are expressions that are more abstract, where the meaning of the phrase as a whole differs from the words that it is composed of. One such example in English is the saying “to kill time.” Of course, time is not something that we can literally kill; yet we use this expression when we mean “to pass time.” Similar to idioms, colloquialisms are words or phrases that are used informally in casual conversation, including slang.

Considerations When Translating 

There are a number of reasons that make translating idioms one of the hardest tasks in a translator’s job. For one thing, the translator must be familiar not only with the source and target languages that they are working with, but also with the cultures of these languages. Otherwise, a translator might not even recognize that something is even an idiom. Take the Spanish “No tener pelos en la lengua” for example. Read literally, this translates to “not have hairs on the tongue,” which doesn’t make much sense unless one knows that this is used in the same way as the English “to speak frankly.” 

Idioms can present other difficulties, such as the fact that there may be no equivalent expression in the target language, or that an idiom may have a similar phrase in the target language but the context in which it is used is different. One expression that fits the first case is the Japanese 猫舌, meaning “cat tongue,” which is used to reference someone that can’t eat or drink hot things, an expression that just doesn’t exist in English. For the second case, we can look at the Spanish “Quedarse de piedra,” which translates to “to stay like a stone.” From this literal translation, someone might guess that the correct English expression would be “to be as still as a stone,” or motionless. Actually, the Spanish idiom means “to be shocked.” 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Strategies for Translating Idioms

Thankfully, there are a few different strategies that you can use when translating idioms and colloquialisms. Keep in mind though, that which one you choose should be made on a case by case basis, as there are a lot of factors that should be taken into consideration. 

Rather than translate idioms word for word, try to use an equivalent expression in the target language. The best case scenario is if the target language has a saying that is similar in both the meaning and the word choice. However, if you cannot find an idiom with similar words, use one in the target language that has the same meaning, such as translating the Spanish “De tal palo, tal astilla” (literally “From a stick, such a splinter”) to the English “Chip off the old block.” This way, you keep the same literary tone of the piece, without losing the meaning. 

But what if you don’t have a similar colloquialism in the target language? Here, you have a few options. You could translate by paraphrase, using your own words to give the overall meaning. For example, Japanese has a lot of sayings which don’t have a corresponding English version like 目が点になる (“eyes become dots”) and 耳にたこができる (“hear until you get a callus on the ear.”) In English you could simply say “become shocked” and “be told repeatedly,” respectively. Unfortunately, by paraphrasing you may end up losing some of the original tone, particularly if the idiom is meant in a humorous manner. However, if none of the above solutions work for the particular idiom, you may have to leave it out of your translation, but some meaning will probably be lost here as well. 

We hope these tips help you next time you need to translate an idiom or colloquialism! Are there any strategies we forgot? Tell us in the comments below!

Leave a Reply