An idiom, loosely understood as a phrase or expression that has a figurative rather than literal meaning, can pose many challenges when it comes to translation. As a saying understood within a certain demographic group, an idiom can loose vitality and nuance when it is rendered into translated form. An experienced translator understands this particular challenge and works hard to render idioms and similar figures of speech in a way that captures both the original expression but also the meaning implied by the words.


Idioms in Cultural Context
Thousands of idioms exist across all languages and people groups, with more than 25,000 idioms occurring in the English language alone. Some idioms, when they were first used, actually had literal meaning. For example, the idiom “barking up the wrong tree”–which means to misunderstand a situation–originally developed in reference to hunting dogs that barked at the wrong tree when pursuing prey. Other idioms reflect a culture’s understanding–or misunderstanding–of a particular topic. The idiom “once in a blue moon,” for example, finds its origins in a misunderstanding of the occurrence and frequency of blue moons, which happen once every three years or so. The phrase, as used today, indicates something that occurs rarely.

Idioms in Contemporary Translation
Idioms hold a unique place in the landscape of a language. Their meaning cannot be derived by merely attempting to add together the meaning of all the words in the phrase. In fact, idioms defy definition through traditional means. To accurately render an idiom in translation, a translator must have an understanding of the culture and communities in which it occurs, as well as an understanding of the idiom’s implied meaning. This makes idioms difficult to translate, because if it is translated word-for word, the meaning will not match the original. Idioms have be treated by a translator as units of vocabulary. Only then, can a translator respond with efficacy to the challenge of rendering an idiom in translation.

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Idioms, Idiomatic Phrases, and the Challenges of Literal Translation