In Germany you have “Tomaten auf den Augen” (tomatoes in the eyes); in Italy it’s “Gli occhi foderati di prosciutto” (ham in the eyes) – when you can’t see what everyone else can see. If you were in a café in Paris you might overhear “Sautes du coq à l’âne” (to jump from the cock to the donkey). “Bulka z maslem” in Polish means a “piece of cake” in English – they both mean that a task is easy
The number of idioms and unique expression in the world is practically endless – books have been written on it and barely scratched the surface of those funny phrases we use all the time. Across languages the different images associated with a certain situation may change, but the essential meaning often stays the same.
Online translation tools and free online dictionaries are becoming more and more sophisticated but even Google Translate isn’t always up to the challenge of translating an idiom. There’s sometimes just no substitute for the human element. That’s because automated translation still struggles to include cultural reference points in the algorithms that govern how words are translated. It’s one of the main weaknesses of many online translators.
Speaking another language requires knowledge of grammar as well as a wide range of vocabulary, but an understanding of cultural backgrounds can also be important. In translation, it often becomes one of the major factors that need to be understood when translating or interpreting idioms and sayings. Sometimes there can be differences between regions and dialects even within a specific country.
Remember! When translating idioms, make sure you do your research for the meaning of a source language idiom on the Internet or in the vocabulary and find an appropriate solution for the target language. If you’re interpreting, you probably won’t have time to do this and you’ll need to think of an equivalent phrase quickly!
Be Careful! Some idioms are ‘misleading’: they seem transparent because they offer a reasonable literal interpretation, but their actual meanings are different; or maybe you can notice that an idiom in the source language has a very close counterpart in the target language. But, even though it can look similar on the surface, sometimes these two phrases can have totally different meanings.
Paraphrase! Generally when translating or interpreting sayings, you will need to paraphrase what is being said rather than offer up a literal translation. Sometimes that means breaking away from an idiom, and just explaining the meaning of what is being said in a more literal way. For example, if you don’t find an equivalent in the target language for the English expression prepare the ground you should paraphrase with “create a suitable situation for something to take place”.
Omit! Don’t worry too much about losing something from the original expression. It would be great having the same figure, magic and fun of an original idiom, but sometimes it’s just not possible. If fact, there might not be a close match in the target language or other reasons why you just can’t quite get the exact “gist” of what’s being said. That’s ok – just be clear on meaning as much as you can.
Compensate! Using the typical phraseology of the target language with its natural colloquialisms will improve the readability of a translated piece. By using local language, a text will seem more natural and can pass for an original.