How do you translate idiomatic expressions?

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Every region has its own idiosyncrasies, and these are also expressed through language. What makes for a nice joke in intercultural dialogue often proves to be a real challenge for translators. But what is an idiom really? And what do you do if it doesn’t have a direct translation?

Idiomatic phrases and wordplays are the final bosses for every translator, because these are linguistic puzzles that can’t be completely solved through perfect grammar and an extensive vocabulary. You also need cultural knowledge and a lot of creativity to convey not just the meaning but also the undertones and humour of these expressions in your own language.

The problem quickly becomes obvious when you’re talking about films. If a German person asked you whether you’d seen “Knights of the Coconut” or told you they enjoyed the Woody Allen film “Urban Neurotic”, you’d look at them like they were the coconut knight or urban neurotic. That’s because the English titles are, of course, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Annie Hall”. If I tell my German friends that I feel like I’m in “Groundhog Day”, they also look at me strangely because the German title “Und täglich grüßt das Murmeltier” literally means “the groundhog says hello every day”.

But the difficulty in translation doesn’t end with titles. As an American, I’m pretty used to watching foreign films with subtitles. Of course, I have no room to talk because all the blockbusters are produced in my native language, but I’m still astounded that Germans consistently challenge themselves to dub every film in German. With dubbing, you’re not just translating the words – it all also has to make sense in context. In this kind of translation, you’re juggling accents, the actors suddenly have an entirely different voice and the words being spoken also have to somewhat match with the actors’ lip movements. In most cases, it’s nearly impossible to do all of this, let alone do it well. Take the accents, for instance. If you’re trying to translate the role of a US Southerner, will you cast a Bavarian to distinguish them from the New Yorker who probably speaks like a Berliner? And for a British person, will that then translate to High German?

When vocabulary and grammar alone aren’t enough …

Let’s get back to the problem of idiomatic expressions in texts. As a translator of written language, I also stumble upon expressions that, either in English or German, don’t have an equivalent. This often comes down to cultural or regional differences. Sometimes idioms simply don’t extend beyond a limited linguistic range. You also notice that within your own language. I’m sometimes caught off guard by certain expressions when speaking to an Australian or Scottish person. And you can be sure that people from Hamburg and Bavaria aren’t always communicating without misunderstandings.

A simple expression – which also reveals cultural differences – is when a British person says, “That’s not my cup of tea.” This can be translated into the German with “das ist nicht mein Bier” (“that’s not my beer”). So, language can also communicate different taste preferences. However, there are some idiomatic expressions that might perhaps convey the meaning but can’t be fully translated. To demonstrate this, I played around a bit with Google Translate:

The meaning of the German idiom “Kleinvieh macht auch Mist” is quickly pretty clear, but the equivalent you’d actually use – “small things make a difference” – loses the farmer’s wisdom aspect of the source.

The other way round, “the ball is in your court” makes no sense directly translated into German, which back-translates as “the ball is in your courthouse”. It would actually be more like “nun liegt es an Ihnen” (“now it’s on you”). This often comes down to linguistic nuances, since the similar phrase “Sie sind am Ball” (roughly “you’ve got the ball”) implies that you’re already active, whereas “the ball is in your court” is waiting for you to take action.

These subtleties are the reason why translators and proofreaders at EnglishBusiness are always native speakers of the target language. And we even take it one step further. If a customer requests American English, the source text will be translated and proofread by colleagues from that linguistic region. The same applies for British English.

The final text shouldn’t read like a translation – it should read as if it were written by a native speaker in the target language. Idiomatic expressions in the source text demand a high level of creativity and experience as well as an extensive vocabulary.

Do you have a difficult translation job? Let us have a go at it.

Kayla Hirsch

Kayla Hirsch
Translation Editor & Consultant

Kayla is from the Southeast of the US, where she earned degrees in political science and German studies. She loves traveling, and she lived in Washington, D.C., Berlin and Nuremberg before she decided to settle in Hamburg. In her free time, she’s usually watching films or reading; at EnglishBusiness she’s an expert on translation and proofreading. You’ll find articles from her here on all things linguistics and written communication.

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