Thursday 1 September 2011

How to Translate an Idiom?

Idioms are very intricate expressions, which makes them especially difficult to translate into another language. The reason behind this difficulty is that first of all, idioms are culture-bound, i.e. specific to particular culture and society, secondly, their meaning is rather metaphorical than literal, and hence they should not be translated word for word.
Idioms are like metaphors; their meaning is hidden, and you need to know what idea the whole idiom carries because dissecting it into words and trying to work out their meaning will not give you any clue. So how to translate an idiom, is there any golden rule? The golden rule is that when it comes to translating an idiomatic expression, you cannot create anything on your own by simply translating it word for word. Idioms are well-established expressions and what you need to do is to find the closest equivalent in the target language. Use a good dictionary, ask a native speaker or try your luck in an internet search.
The following example will show you how NOT to translate idiomatic expressions:
In order to describe the idea that something happens very rarely in English we say that it happens once in a blue moon. To describe the same phenomenon in Polish it is tempting to translate this expression literally into: raz na niebieski księżyc, and be satisfied with the result.
once in – raz na
blue – niebieski
moon – księżyc
Now try to tell a Polish person that something happens ‘raz na niebieski księżyc’, and they will give you ‘the look’ that usually makes people feel embarrassed...
If you want to describe this idea using a Polish idiom, you need to find one that already exists in Polish language and is the closest equivalent to the English one. A Polish idiom that means exactly the same as the English once in a blue moon  is: raz na ruski rok, which literally in English would be: once in a Russian year.
raz na – once in
ruski – Russian
rok – year
Now, would it make any sense if someone told you that something happens once in a Russian year? I am sure you would give this person ‘that look’.
Here are a few examples of idioms in English and their closest equivalents in Polish. The literal translation provided for each idiom is rather for a laugh and indicates how NOT to translate it.

ENG:  A piece of cake         Literal translation:    Kawałek ciasta 
POL:   Bułka z masłem        Literal translation:    A roll with butter
ENG: Too many cooks spoil the broth                            Literal translation:     Zbyt dużo kucharzy zepsuje rosół                                                                                                                           
POL:  Gdzie kucharek sześć, tam nie ma co jeść           Literal translation:     Where there are too
many cooks, there's nothing to eat                                                                          
ENG: Not to make head or tail of something         Literal translation: Nie rozróżnić głowy od ogona.
POL: Siedzieć jak na tureckim kazaniu                  Literal translation: To sit like in a Turkish sermon
ENG: To spill the beans      Literal translation: Wysypać fasolę                                                                
POL: Puścić farbę                Literal translation: To spill the paint
ENG: To bite more than you can chew   Literal translation: Ugryźć więcej niż potrafisz przeżuć                                          
POL: Porywać się z motyką na słońce    Literal translation: To lunge at the sun with a hoe
ENG: It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.  Literal translation: To była ostatnie źdźbło słomy, które połamało wielbłądowi kręgosłupPOL: Miarka się przebrała   Literal translation: The scale went over the top.
ENG: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks   Literal translation: Nie nauczysz starego psa nowych sztuczek 
POL: Czego Jaś się nie nauczy, tego Jan nie będzie umiał. Literal translation: What Johnny hasn't learnt, John will not know                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
ENG: To sleep like a log      Literal translation:  Spać jak kłoda                                                          
POL: Spać jak kamień          Literal translation: To sleep like a stone

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