Idioms are an important part of our language, maybe even more than we actually realize. They are so ingrained in our normal language usage that we may even use them without realizing it. It is important to understand what an idiom is. According to Webster’s Dictionary, an idiom is “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements” or “a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people”. Basically, idioms are the expressions and sayings that people use when they speak or write that have their own unique meanings and cannot always be taken literally. There’s no use beating around the bush – we can’t turn a blind eye to them. So what do we do with them when they appear in a text that needs to be translated?
A professional translator will recognize an idiom and find the equivalent to that expression in the target language. More often than not, the expression used in the source language will not be the same as the expression’s corresponding version in the target language. However, the target language will have its own version of the expression that the translator will use instead. It is extremely important to use the target language version of the idiom. If translated word for word, an idiom will lose its intended meaning and may actually cause a complete lack of understanding for the reader in the target language.
Here are some common English idioms with their Spanish equivalents. We have included the literal translation of the Spanish versions just to show how much meaning may actually be lost if one tries to convert the Spanish idiom back into English.
English Source: “To turn a blind eye”
Spanish Target: “Taparse los ojos”
Literal Back Translation: “To cover one’s eyes”
English Source: “To beat around the bush”
Spanish Target: “Andarse por rodeos”
Literal Back Translation: “To go on detours”
English Source: “It’s 6 of 1 and half a dozen of the other.”
Spanish Target: “Olivo y aceituno, todo es uno.”
Literal Back Translation: “An olive and an olive tree, it’s all one.”
English Source: “On all fours”
Spanish Target: “A gatas”
Literal Back Translation: “Like cats”
While these are a few fun examples, you can see how literal translations can be problematic. The same is true for all of the text you need to have translated, not just for idioms. Anyone who reads the target text should believe it was written originally in his/her language. Literal translations of texts are easy to spot and they can turn customers off to your brand or products, as they are a sign that little care was put into trying to connect with the reader.
Have you come across any literal translations that caused a translation blunder? Feel free to share them below!