in Language & Culture, Translation

Translators deal with a lot of challenges. Apart from making sure that text is grammatically correct and uses appropriate tone, they must also decide when and how to translate certain cultural aspects and linguistic nuances. Enter the delicate art of idiom translation.

Working as a Chinese translator, my greatest enemies are the dreaded chengyu (成语). Chengyus are four-character idiomatic expressions based on classical Chinese stories and are commonly used in modern day Chinese writing and spoken language.  It is usually impossible to guess the meaning of a chengyu without any explanation. Even translators with a native-level grasp of the language must research the meaning of these phrases in order to properly translate them.

From my experience working as a translator, I have come to realize that the way in which I translate metaphors and idioms is done on a case by case basis. It is important to keep in mind that linguistic rules vary depending on the language and context. In Chinese it is acceptable to use an idiom or metaphor in a formal document, whereas formal English text should usually be as simple and clear as possible. I can, however, provide some basic tips for when you encounter an idiom or metaphor which needs to be translated.

Understand the meaning

The first step is to understand the meaning of the idiom or metaphor. In the case of the Chinese chengyu, this will most likely require some research. Make sure you not only understand the meaning of the metaphor or idiom, but also the reason behind why it is being used based on the context.

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Find an equivalent phrase in the target language

After fully understanding the meaning, determine whether there is an equivalent metaphor or idiom in the target language. Keep in mind that the target language metaphor may use similar words or objects, or it could use completely different wording to express the same meaning.

Analyze the context

Lastly, decide whether the target language idiom or metaphor is appropriate based on the context and formality of the document. If the equivalent metaphor will be easily understood by the target audience and correlates with the overall tone of the text, go ahead and use it. The main goal, however, is that the text flows and sounds natural to a native speaker, and is appropriate and fitting for the context it is being used for. You can check this by asking yourself if a native speaker would use the metaphor or idiom to express the phrase within the context.

Cultural and linguistic nuances can definitely add to a piece. However, as a general rule for translating, it is best to use simple and clear text when it comes to idiom translation.

Author: Marie Tornquist, Writer, Global Communications

  1. Hi Marie,
    An interesting article. It would have been great, if you had provided some examples.
    From my experience and the study which I did on the same subject, in most cases, it would not be enough to use a metaphor equivalent in translation. In addition to context, most metaphors are country or region specific. Consider the following example: In British English there is a metaphor that says: “to carry coals to Newcastle”, which I am sure you know what does it mean.
    In my pair language, Arabic, and in Iraqi Arabic there is a saying similar in meaning that goes: “to sell dates in Shithatha”, the latter being a town in central Iraq which is famous for the abundance and quality of dates it produces. Would it be intelligible to translate carry coals to Newcastle into to sell dates in Shithatha? Don’t you agree that we would need at least a minimum amount of explanation?
    In Egypt, there is a metaphor with a similar meaning that goes like: “to sell water in the quarter of the water-sellers. Even if we are translating from English into Arabic, which is the spoken language in both Iraq and Egypt, there remains a degree of unnaturalness, if we try to translate a metaphor for a metaphor.
    Thank you.

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