The ultimate guide to translating idioms

Idioms are a key part of language. They are little nuggets of poetry in a paragraph of prose. But, if truth be told, they can be a real thorn in the side of translators. In this Ultimate Guide to Translating Idioms, Lucy explains what an idiom is, why they are the cause of such misery for translators and how to actually translate the pesky blighters. So, let’s cut to the chase…

What is an idiom?

1. a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon).
2. a form of expression natural to a language, person or group of people.

Looking at this dictionary definition (thanks Google), it comes as no surprise that idioms are difficult to translate. An idiom is “a group of words that portray a meaning that cannot be guessed from knowing the meaning of the individual words”. In other words, the only way to know what an idiom means is to know the idiom. Their very nature means that you can’t work out the meaning of the phrase from the phrase alone.

Part two of the definition states that idioms are “a form of expression natural to a language”. And that brings us nicely on to the next section of this article…

Why translating idioms is different to translating normal text

There are two different ways of translating text:

Method A: Translate the individual words. This is the method commonly used by non-professionals and in machine translation. The translator or machine looks at the meaning of the individual words and searches for equivalent words in the target language. It is commonly known as literal translation (DE: wörtliche Übersetzung).

Method B: Understand the meaning of the phrase or sentence (or even paragraph in certain cases) and come up with a phrase or sentence that expresses the same meaning in the target language. This is the method applied by professional translators and it is what allows professional translators to create texts that read like they have been written in the target language, rather than as translations (a common pitfall of inexperienced translators and machine translations).

Looking back to our two definitions of an idiom; Definition One stated that the meaning of an idiom cannot be deduced from the individual words. This means that Translation Method A will bring up all kinds of brilliant results:

bees in the bottom LEaF Translations

If you translate literally, you have literally no chance when it comes to idioms.

One of my favourite idioms in English is “cutting off your nose to spite your face” (because it is so expressive, not because I like the violence!). If you translate this literally into German, you end up with something along the lines of “schneide deine Nase ab, um dein Gesicht zu ärgern”, as confirmed by our good old friend Google Translate:

Screen Shot 2018 02 26 at 10.01.28 LEaF Translations

This makes absolutely no sense to German speakers. The correct German idiom is “sich ins eigene Fleisch schneiden”, or “to cut your own flesh”. Which equally, when put like that, sounds fairly hideous to English speakers!

As idioms are defined as “forms of expression natural to a language” that “have a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words”, it follows that you cannot translate an unfamiliar idiom by simply understanding the meaning of the words in the phrase.

Idioms vary from country to country and they rarely have word-for-word equivalents across different languages. In the next section, we take a look at one particular English idiom – “killing two birds with one stone” – and see how it translates into eleven different languages.

Killing two birds with one stone – one phrase in twelve languages

This is an extract from a blog post I wrote many years ago, whilst working at a translation company in Berlin…

Killing two birds with one stone - this phrase has got me thinking. It seems like an awfully violent thing to say and yet it is used by lots of English speakers in everyday conversation across the world. I bet someone has just said it now, and now, and probably now.

Germans also use a description of killing animals to mean "do two things at once", but they are possibly a little more humane; they "only" kill flies, in fact, they don’t explicitly kill them, they "hit two flies with one clap".

And what about other languages? Which animals are metaphorically killed/injured/maimed in France, Italy, Russia, China, etc.? Working in an office full of translators gave me a splendid opportunity to find out. But first, a little more about the English version.

After much research, the only information I can find regarding the origin of "kill two birds with one stone" comes from wikianswers – a reliable source no doubt! According to this website, the English version comes from the Chinese: They say "一石二鳥", or "yi shi er niao", which roughly translates as "one stone, two birds". 

It seems a little more poetic than the English version – the idea of causing serious harm to the birds is kindly left unsaid. Maybe the Chinese even mean something entirely different from the English version; perhaps, "if you pick up a stone two birds will appear". Their alternative phrase "一箭雙雕" or "yi jian shuang diao" translates as "one arrow double vultures"; I suppose the English translation may have been spot on after all.

The mystery of why English speakers kill birds with stones remains unsolved then. Perhaps investigating other languages will provide some more insight. Below are the languages I have compiled thus far. Please inform me if you know the phrase in a language not yet covered!
DutchTwee vliegen in één klap slaanTwo flies with one clap
FrenchFaire d’une pierre deux coupsMake two hits with one stone
GermanZwei Flieger mit einer Klappe schlagenTwo flies with one clap
GreekMe ena sbaro dio trigoniaTwo turtle doves with one shot
HungarianKét legyet üt egy csapásraTwo flies with one hit
IndonesianSekali merengkuh dayung dua tiga pulau terlampauiOvercome two or three islands with one paddle/stroke
ItalianPrendere due piccioni con una favaTake out two pigeons with one fava bean
PolishZa jednym zamachemIn one slap
PortugeseMatar dois coelhos de uma cajadada sóKill two rabbits with one blow
Russianубить одном выстрелом двух зайцевHit two hares with one shot
SpanishMatar dos pájaros de un tiroKill two birds in one go
UzbekBir o’q bilan ikki quyonni urmoqHit two hares with one shot
So there you have it; all the other languages I researched, apart from the island-hopping Indonesian, use a metaphor describing the hunting of an animal to say "do two things at once". 

There are differences though, the Dutch, Germans and Hungarians are humane enough only to kill flies; the Greeks, Italians and Spanish all kill birds, albeit of various kinds; and the Italians are kind enough to use fava beans to do it. Meanwhile, evil Russians and Portugese kill rabbits and hares! The French, incidentally, don’t mention animals either, but they still retain the aspect of violence with their "two hits with one stone".

For now, the history to this saying will have to remain a mystery, but it is rather interesting that pretty much every other language I found the saying in has an equivalent that is almost, if not more, violent and anti-animal than the English version. There must be a reason for this. Answers on a postcard please…

How to translate idioms

And that brings us nicely onto the crux of the matter: how do you translate idioms? If it is impossible to work out the meaning of the phrase just by looking at it, conventional translation practises aren’t going to work. You are going to have to dig a little deeper.

But do not worry, help is at hand. Below I have detailed the three simple steps that you need to follow to translate an idiom.

Step 1: Identify the idiom

Well this sounds fairly obvious, but it isn’t always that easy. If you don’t know the idiom in question, then it can be hard to spot. As a general rule of thumb, if you read a sentence in the source language and part of it doesn’t make any sense at all, then you are probably dealing with an idiom. They usually consist of random metaphors that bear no relation to the topic at hand.

Thus, in an article about a sporting event, the winning athlete could be described as being “over the moon” with their success, despite the discipline in question being firmly rooted on this earth. When booking accommodation, you may be warned “don’t judge a book by its cover”, even though you are looking at hotels, not books. And, when talking about how excited you are about your team winning the cup, someone might reply with “don’t count your chickens”, and, if you are not a native English speaker, you may find yourself wondering what on earth chickens have to do with anything!

Of course, these are all examples of idioms, and thus they make no sense whatsoever unless you are already familiar with the idiom.

dont count your chickens LEaF Translations

Step 2: Understand the meaning of the idiom

So, you have now identified that you are dealing with an idiom. The next job is to try and work out what on earth it means. As we have already discussed, this is nigh on impossible by looking at the idiom itself. You may be able to work out the gist of what is being said by the idiom itself – for example, “don’t judge a book by its cover” suggests that the quality of the appearance of the book does not necessarily guarantee the quality of what is inside, and this principle can be applied to other things in life too.

Often, however, you may be none the wiser. At this point you have two options: ask a native speaker or do some research online. If you have a native speaker to hand, then they will be your best bet. If not, do not make the mistake of using Google Translate or another machine translation tool. As shown above, they tend to translate literally, so will just spit out a literal translation of the idiom, which will make not a jot of sense.

You can try looking up the idiom in an online dictionary, such as the fabulous LEO, or you can look up the phrase in a search engine and try and get more context for the idiom.

We are so lucky to have the internet available to us. Imagine what life as a translator must have been like in the days before the world wide web! Anyway, I digress… Once you have cracked the meaning of the idiom, you can move onto Step 3.

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Step 3: Find an equivalent idiom in the target language

The best way to translate an idiom is to find an equivalent idiom in the target language. The author of the source text will have included the idiom for a reason, and it makes sense to try and follow their lead by incorporating a suitable equivalent into your translation.

This is not always possible, however. Sometimes there simply aren’t any suitable idioms in the target language. The idiom that you have stumbled across is basically untranslatable. In this instance, all you can do is to convey the meaning of the idiom. This sentence of your translation may be slightly less poetic as a result, but it is better to get across the meaning than try to create an idiom where one doesn’t exist.

When all is said and done…

…the aim of a translator has to be to create a text that perfectly conveys the meaning and tone of the source text, without sounding like a translation. Idioms make this job mighty difficult at times, but they also represent a great opportunity to use some great imagery in your target text. When used correctly, idioms can make translations sing. They can be the difference between a translation sounding dull and uninspiring, and a translation sounding like a beautifully crafted piece of writing in the target language.

As translators, our aim must always be to create the latter. So, I call on you to embrace the idiom and, next time you come across one in a translation, don’t feel aggrieved – instead, embrace the opportunity to learn a new saying in the source language and to incorporate some fabulous imagery into your translation. It could make all the difference.

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About the Author


Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.