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Translation of Idioms: A Hard Task for the Translator



Idioms can be considered as a part of everyday language. They are the essence of any language and the most problematic part to handle with. Not all idioms have direct equivalents in another language, because they are linguistic expressions which are typical for a language and specific to a single culture. It is impossible to define any unique approach in the translating process since so many idioms are culturally specific and thus the pragmatic meaning must be much more prized than the literal meaning. If they are to be translated literally or word for word, they lead to extreme confusion. The present study investigates some important idioms in the book What You Asked For, and provides the readers with the procedures and strategies used to translate them. The procedures are proposed by Baker (1992). This paper presents the definition of idioms to see what they are. Then, it classifies the idioms into different categories and in the end, gives some techniques and procedures to translate them.
ISSN 1799-2591
Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Vol. 1, No. 7, pp. 879-883, July 2011
© 2011 ACADEMY PUBLISHER Manufactured in Finland.
Translation of Idioms: A Hard Task for the
Amineh Adelnia
University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran
Hossein Vahid Dastjerdi
English Department, University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran
AbstractIdioms can be considered as a part of everyday language. They are the essence of any language and
the most problematic part to handle with. Not all idioms have direct equivalents in another language, because
they are linguistic expressions which are typical for a language and specific to a single culture. It is impossible
to define any unique approach in the translating process since so many idioms are culturally specific and thus
the pragmatic meaning must be much more prized than the literal meaning. If they are to be translated
literally or word for word, they lead to extreme confusion. The present study investigates some important
idioms in the book What You Asked For, and provides the readers with the procedures and strategies used to
translate them. The procedures are proposed by Baker (1992). This paper presents the definition of idioms to
see what they are. Then, it classifies the idioms into different categories and in the end, gives some techniques
and procedures to translate them.
Index Termstranslation, idioms, classification of idioms, equivalents, culture specific, translation strategies
Translation is used to transfer meaning from one language to another. A written or spoken SL text will be exchanged
by its equivalent written or spoken TL text. In most cases, however, we as translators can not find the proper equivalent
of some of the SL items. According to Culler (1976), languages contain concepts which differ radically from those of
another, since each language organizes the world differently. When we compare languages we find that different
cultures have identified similar social observations and according to their knowledge and experience coin their own
phrases. So we can conclude that the disparity among languages are problematic for translators and the more different
the concepts of languages are, the more difficult it is to transfer messages from one language to the other. Among the
troublesome factors involved in the process of translation is the transference of form, meaning, style, proverbs, idioms,
etc. Before going deep into the discussion, there is a need to define idioms to distinguish them from non-idioms.
Idioms are linguistic expressions or lexical items representing objects, concepts or phenomena of material life
particular to a given culture. They are necessary to any language in order to keep the local and cultural color of that
language. In a definition given by Larson idiom is “a string of words whose meaning is different from the meaning
conveyed by the individual words” (Larson, 1984, p.20). In another place he states that idiom “carries certain emotive
connotations not expressed in the other lexical items” (Larson, 1984, p.142). In Longman dictionary o f English idioms
(Longman Group Ltd: 1979) idioms are referred to as “a fixed group of words with a special different meaning from the
meaning of the separate words”. So the first thing to mention here is that idioms can not be translated literally because
their meaning won’t be predicted from the usual meaning of their constituents. For example the idiom it was a pretty
kettle of fish refers to a messy situation and in Farsi is translated as
. Here there is nothing to do
with the kettle, a utensil in the kitchen, or the fish, an animal living in water. We can see that if this idiom will be
translated word by word as
it will make no sense to the readers.
In her book, In Other Words, Mona Baker (1992) states that idioms are frozen patterns of language which allow little
or no variation in form and often carry meanings which can not be deduced from their individual components. So by
stating this definition she considers five conditions for idioms which come as follow:
1) The order of the words in an idiom cannot be changed. The way the words are put together is fixed and they can
not change their place. E.g. “go to rack and ruin” not “go to ruin and rack”.
2) The words in an idiom can not be omitted. We as the users of the language are not permitted to delete some of the
words of a particular element. E.g. “shed crocodile tears” not “shed tears”.
3) There are no extra words that might be added to an idiom. E.g. have a narrow escape” not have a narrow quick
4) No words in an idiom can be replaced by another word. E.g. out of sight, out of mind not out of sight, out of
5) The grammatical structures of an idiom can not also be changed. We have the idiom of “ring the bell” but we don’t
have “the bell was ringed”.
Translating idioms is a very difficult task for a translator especially if he is not aware of the cultural differences of the
source and target languages. The main problem for him is recognizing idioms and distinguishing idiomatic from
non-idiomatic expressions. In order to help to understand idioms better, there is a classification of them. Idioms can be
grouped into five categories of colloquialisms, proverbs, slang, allusions and phrasal verbs. Below is a brief definition
of each with some examples.
A. Colloquialism
Colloquialism is an expression not used in formal speech or writing. Colloquialism or colloquial language is
considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than
formal speech or writing. They are used in daily conversations. For example in the case a person laughs a lot we
say      (he died of laughter). It is an informal way of saying  (laughed a lot). Another
example of colloquialism can be the expression of  which is used the time that we say something by accident
and not deliberately.
Colloquialism is often used primarily within a limited geographical area. Example of this geographical type of
colloquialism is the use of the word  by the people living in Isfahan and the word  by the people living in
Yazd (a city near Isfahan). They refer to one item differently. Both of them refer to the husband of one’s wife’s sister but
not in a similar way.
B. Proverbs
Proverb is a simple way of speaking. It is used the time when we want to make our speech more concrete and more
understandable. It is popularly used and repeated and expresses facts and truth based on common sense. Wolfgang
Mieder is an American scholar working on proverb. He defines proverb as follows:
A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional
views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from generation to generation (Mieder
1985, p.119; also in 1993, p.24).
The reason to use proverbs can be to choose a way of saying a fact gently and smoothly and to make it more reliable
and valid. Other times, they are used to carry more weight in a discussion. Another reason can be to give more taste and
beauty to our speech. Good speakers try to make use of proverbs to attract their audience.
Examples of proverbs in Farsi can be   (in Rome do as the Romans do) or the
expression  (no pain, no gain) which refers to the situation of suffering in order to gain the
thing we have intended to achieve.
C. Slang
Slang is the use of highly informal words and expressions that are not considered as the standard use of language. It
is often used as a way to say words that are not appropriate or somehow taboo. Dumas and Lighter (1978) argue that
slang lowers the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing and replace a well-known conventional synonym. Slang
is used to add humor and fun to one’s speech. An example of slang can be    which is the time when
somebody is looking extremely ill, or the term  which points to something very different from others in the same
group. The term  in Farsi is another slang used mostly by teenagers and refers to something very cool.
D. Allusions
Allusion is a figure of speech that makes a reference to a place, event, literary work, myth, or work of art, either
directly or by implication. Abrams (1971) defined allusion as “a brief reference, explicit or indirect, to a person, place or
event, or to another literary work or passage”.
To give an example of allusion we can refer to the expression of      which implies doing
something of no worth or performing an action of no importance. Another example can be  which is
an allusion to the city of Kerman and is equivalent to the expression of bring coal to the Newcastle.
E. Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal verb is the combination of a verb and a preposition, a verb and an adverb, or a verb with both an adverb and a
preposition. A phrasal verb often has a meaning which is different from the original verb.
They are usually used informally in everyday speech as opposed to the more formal verbs. For example the informal
use of to go on instead of the word to continue or the use of to hand in rather than to deliver.
When a translator recognizes an idiom and distinguishes it from non-idiomatic expressions, the next step is to select
the suitable strategy to translate it. Of course in the beginning of his work, he will face some difficulties and problems.
He should investigate which strategy is more appropriate in dealing with the translation of the source idiom into the
target language.
Most of the time, a source language idiom has no equivalent in the target language. This can be a very important
factor a translator should notice. Different languages express different concepts and realities in a different way which is
particular to that language. Therefore, sometimes a same concept or idea is referred to distinctly in two different
languages. Of course it does not mean that because the idiom has not its equivalent in the TL it should not be translated.
The translator tries to translate it in a way that the sense won’t be lost. In translating “to carry coals to Newcastle” the
translator has no problem during his process of translation because it has an equivalent in Persian as “
 
”. The meaning and the sense is the same in both Persian and English languages. It means to offer someone the
thing which he has already plenty of.
The way an idiom is to be translated depends on the context in which it is used. We have different and various
translation strategies but the translator should see the use of which kind of these strategies can help the target language
readers to better comprehend the meaning of the idioms. When translating a source idiom the translator should be
conscious of the sense. He may change some aspects of the idiom to preserve the sense and to transfer it to the TL
readers. In the case that the original idiom does not have its equivalent in another language, the translator should not
delete that idiom from his text but he should clarify more on it to let the readers understand its meaning better. Fernando
and Flavell express that there is “strong unconscious urge in most translators to search hard for an idiom in the receptor
language, however inappropriate it may be” (1981, p.82).
The strategies which are used in this article are those proposed by Mona Baker (1992). They are going to be
illustrated more by using some examples of idiomatic expressions in both English and Persian as the source and target
A. Using an Idiom of Similar Meaning and Form
By using this strategy, the translator tries to find an idiom in the target language which is equivalent to the source
language both in terms of meaning as well as lexical items. This strategy is hardly achieved because languages differ
radically in the way they identify a single concept. However, it is regarded as the ideal strategy for translating idioms. In
the example of.
Things are not always what they seem
I'm all ears
Has the cat got your tongue?
We keep both the meaning and the form of the source language idiom and have an exact equivalent for it. Here the
lexical items are remained the same and the sense is not lost at all.
B. Using an Idiom of Similar Meaning but Dissimilar Form
In this case the meaning of the target idiom is the same as that of the original idiom but the lexical items are different.
Here you are provided with some examples.
Out of sight, out of mind
While the cats away, the mice will play
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
In the examples above, in order to represent the same meaning, we make use of different lexical items.
C. Translation by Paraphrase
This strategy is most commonly used in the process of translating idioms in the cases that the translator cannot find
any equivalents for the source idiom. Earlier in the article, it was pointed out that when no equivalents exist, it is not a
wise act to omit the whole idiom but to present more clarifications on it. Because of the lexical or stylistic differences
between the two languages, we will not always have correspondence. We should elaborate more on the source idiom to
transfer its meaning to the target language. It is noted here that the given meaning would not be an exact equivalent or
semantic equivalent of the source idiom.
He is a supergrass
You mark my words
First things first
Of course by using this strategy we will face the danger of losing the intended effect that the source language wanted
to have on its audience. It will also lose the cultural significance. The target readers would not have the chance of
getting more familiar with the culture of the source language. Mona Baker defines paraphrasing as "translating a source
language idiom by giving its meaning in the target language. By using this strategy the impact of the idiom and its
cultural significance will be lost (Baker, 1992, p.74).
D. Translation by Omission
The time that there is no close match between the languages' items or the time that the translator cannot find any
equivalents, this strategy is used to completely omit the idiom from the target text. When the idiom is very difficult even
for the translator, he tries to eliminate the whole or part of the idiom like the examples below:
I couldn’t make head or tail of his talk
She has nerves of steel
She offered a left-handed compliment.
It is observed here that the translator has omitted some parts of the idioms and has changed an idiomatic expression
into a non-idiomatic sentence. So the significance of the words in the source idiom is not transferred by the way the
translator has translated them.
Another strategy which is proposed by Baker (1992) is giving a literal translation of the target idiom. Of course the
literal version of the idiom should be acceptable by the target readers and it should be lexically modified. In the case of
not finding a proper equivalent, giving a literal translation is not always an easy task to do. Because the more literal a
text is translated, the more confusion it brings to the readers. According to Newmark literal translation is translating an
idiom by giving a word-for-word translation of the source language idiom, which most of the time results in unnatural
or wrong rendering of idioms (1988, p.69).
Translating “A rotten apple” literally as  is somehow obscure and won’t transfer the sense at all. In order to
avoid confusion, the correct way is to translate it as  or  .
When translating an idiom into the target language the translator should be cautious of the original effects the writer
intends to present. He must be very careful not to lose the sense for his target readers. In the case of giving a literal
translation, the translator should choose those equivalents which carry the same cultural effects as that of the original.
Translating idioms are arguably the most complex and problematic task for translators. Gottlieb suggests that “an
idiom is difficult to decode correctly for someone who only knows the normal meanings of its constituent elements”
(1997, p.260). In another statement proposed by Beekman and Callow, idioms are defined as “the combination of at
least two words which cannot be understood literally and which function as a unit semantically” (1997, p.49).
There are some strategies which can be used for the translation of idioms. The translator should choose a proper
strategy according to the purpose of the translation but at the same time bears in mind that nothing should be eliminated.
Every concept in one particular language has its own correspondent in another language. So omitting a word or an
idiom from a text is not a wise action to take.
In order to better translate an idiom, the translator should identify it from those expressions which are not idioms.
Then investigates the classification to which that particular idiom belongs and selects the suitable strategy for his
translation. During this process, the translator should be careful of the naturalness and readability of his text. He would
better try his best to find equivalences to transfer both the form and the meaning and be thoughtful of not deleting the
whole or eliminating the part of the idiom there is no correspondence for. Larson (1984) states that “the translator also
needs to develop sensitivity to the use of idioms in the receptor language and uses them naturally to make the
translation lively and keep the style of the source language. There will often be words in the source language which are
not idioms but are best translated with an idiom (Larson, 1984, p.116).
[1] Abrams, M. H. (1993). A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub.
[2] Baker, M. (1992). In Other Words: A Course Book on Translation. London and New York: Routledge.
[3] Beekman, J. & Callow, J. (1974).Translating the Word of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[4] Culler, J.(1976). Saussure (American Title: Ferdinand de Saussure). London: Fontana; Brighton: Harvester, 1976. New York:
Penguin, 1977. Second revised edition, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986; London: Fontana, 1987.
[5] Dumas, Bethany K. and Lighter, Jonathan. (1978). "Is Slang a Word for Linguists?" American Speech 53 (5): 14-15.
[6] Fernando, C. and Flavell, R. (1981). On Idiom: Critical View and Perspectives (Exeter Linguistic Studies), University of
[7] Gottlieb, H. (1997). You Got the Picture? On the Polysemiotics of Subtitling Wordplay. In: D. Delabastita. Ed. Essays on
Punning and Translation. Manchester: St. Jerome in Cooperation With Presses Universities de. Namur, Belgium.
[8] Larson, M.L. (1984). Meaning Based Translation: A Guide to Cross Language Equivalence. London and New York: University
Press of America.
[9] Longman Dictionary of Idioms. (1998). UK: Longman.
[10] Mieder, Wolfgang. (1982). Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes Through Folklore.
The Journal of American Folklore 95, No. 378, pp. 435464.
[11] Mieder, Wolfgang. (1982; 1990; 1993). International Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography, with supplements. New
York: Garland Publishing.
[12] Mieder, Wolfgang. (1994). Wise Words: Essays on the Proverb. New York: Garland.
[13] Mieder, Wolfgang and Alan Dundes. (1994). The wisdom of many: essays on the proverb. (Originally published in 1981 by
Garland.) Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
[14] Mieder, Wolfgang. (2001). International Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography. Supplement III (1990-2000). Bern,
New York: Peter Lang.
[15] Mieder, Wolfgang and Anna Tothne Litovkina. (2002). Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs. New York: DeProverbio.
[16] Mieder, Wolfgang. (2004). Proverbs: A Handbook. (Greenwood Folklore Handbooks). New York: Greenwood Press.
[17] Molla, I. (2009). What you asked for. Tehran: Moallef.
[18] Newmark, p. (1988). A Textbook of Translation. New York and London: Practice hall.
Amineh Adelnia (b. 1987, Isfahan, Iran) is currently a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Isfahan, Isfahan,
Iran. She received her M.A. in English Translation at the University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran (2011) following
the completion of her B.A. in English Translation from Kashan University, Kashan, Iran (2008). Her main
research areas of interest are: Translation Studies, Films' Subtitling and also Second Language Acquisition.
She has been working as an EFL instructor since 2004.
Hossein Vahid Dastjerdi (b. 1955, Isfahan, Iran) teaches in the English Language Department at the
University of Isfahan, Iran. He is associate professor of applied linguistics and has taught courses of
variegated character, including translation courses, for years. He has been a fellow of the English Centers at
the universities of Isfahan and Shiraz where he has investigated into issues related to materials preparation for
GE. and ESP. courses. He is the author of a number of books in this respect. He has also published a good
number of articles on discourse, testing and translation in local and international journals.
Dr. Vahid's current research interests include testing, materials development, translation, the metaphoricity
of language, discourse analysis, pragmatics and critical discourse analysis. He is presently involved in a
number of projects concerning translation studies as well as figurative language use.
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Language is constructed in the context of culture; however, the latter in any society is portrayed in the picture of language. African culture is characterized by its richness and diversity that are reflected in its literature. African proverbs and idioms as a part of this richness create a discursive approach that fashions the African fiction and shapes its particularity. In this sense, African fiction in English as a conveyer of African culture via the foreign language forms a hybrid discourse that harmonizes between native and English language. For that reason, the main objective of this paper is to investigate the use of African proverbs and idioms in English as features of English indigenization in Chinua Achebe's Anthills of The Savannah. The latter depicts the post-colonial African society that is governed by a military rule. To accomplish the research work's aim, the two researchers adopt a sociolinguistic perspective with a descriptive method in order to analyze the selected novel. In doing that, the present paper reveals the significance of African proverbs and idioms in English in creating a new authentic discourse that is shaped by a new variety of English.
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Translation entails conversion of words from SL (Source Language) to TL (Target Language) that includes form, meaning, context, culture and expression. Idiom is a multiword expression and its meaning cannot be translated verbatim because idioms are fixed non-compositional expressions that belong to the intersection between language and culture. This makes the translation tricky as there can be a number of options available as meanings for every idiom that is translated into the target language. The precise translation of the idiom is possible if there is an equivalent in the target language but when the equivalent idiom is not available in the target language it has to be paraphrased in such a manner using certain strategies so that the meaning is clear while at the same time the translation should not affect the cultural aspects that play an important role. Therefore, translation of idioms from the source language to the target language must take into consideration the cultures of both languages. In this paper, suggestions are given on how Arabic idioms can be translated into English.
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Idiomatic expressions are used to describe things or conditions that cannot be described by plain words. They carry more impacts than non-idiomatic expressions due to their close identification with a particular language and culture. This research investigates idiomatic expressions and their Indonesian subtitles in The Good Doctor TV series. Two research questions are addressed in this study, namely (1) what types of idiomatic expressions are found in The Good Doctor TV series? and (2) how are the idiomatic expressions in the TV series translated into Indonesian? The researchers employed content analysis. The steps of data collection and analysis included taking the transcript and identifying the idiomatic expressions, identifying their meanings and validating them, and comparing the meanings of the two idiomatic expressions. The results revealed that, first, The Good Doctor TV series contained five types of idiomatic expressions, namely substitutes, proper names, English phrasal compound, figure of speech, and slang. Abbreviation was not found in the TV series. Second, there existed six translation strategies to translate idiomatic expressions in English into Indonesian.DOI:
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Because communication features and underlying values are not shared across all cultures, understanding how communication happens in cultures different from our own is a complex task. This analysis of an oral personal narrative demonstrates ways in which cultural norms, values, and linguistic features significantly impact communication in Nuosu [iii], a minority ethnic group in southwest China. The study provides an example of important features to look for and pay attention to in order to more deeply understand cultural communication.
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This study investigates the most utilized strategies applied by Saudi and Jordanian university male translation students in translating English idiomatic expressions into Arabic. The participants of the study were all B.A. translation students at King Saud University and Yarmouk University who were selected purposefully. The total number of students was 50 (25 Saudis and 25 Jordanians) who participated in a translation test that contained 50 idioms of different categories. The study's quantitative findings revealed that Saudi and Jordanian university translation students use certain shared strategies in translating idioms regardless of their awareness of the use of these strategies.