Idiom ignorance

Idioms, which many translators are loathe to agree, are unavoidable in translation. While most people with a solid understanding of the source language shouldn’t come up against too many hurdles, the problem is that they are so region specific.

Some idioms used in Australia won’t mean anything to people from the United States, and vice versa. I’ll probably use a couple of idioms in this blog without even realizing.

This leads to a lot of difficulty when it comes to translating and, first of all, detecting an idiom.

The importance of localized knowledge when translating is key. But when translating from Spanish to English, for example, should the translator be expected to be familiar with all the idioms used throughout the Latin American countries and Spain? And should Spanish speakers know every idiom in every dialect throughout the English-speaking countries?

How would you translate “make up” for example? Someone who only knows the meaning of the words “make” and “up” will struggle to recognize that put together they could mean to form a group, to compose something, to put parts together, to reconcile with a friend or lover, to invent a story or excuse, to supply something that is lacking, or to repay or regain something, or even to apply foundation and mascara – “she’s making herself up”.

Just the other day a colleague asked me what “all over it” meant. Normally this would mean when something is covered in something else. However, in this case it was preceded by “when asked a question (on a particular topic), he was all over it”. Unless that translator was completely proficient in the target language and the dialect from which they are translating, it is virtually impossible to understand all of these idioms.

If a phrase doesn’t quite seem right, try searching it in an idiom dictionary. The Idiom Connection is a good resource for English idioms. The Free Dictionary also has a good list of idioms in various languages. And last but not least, have a couple of friends on standby who are native to the source language, and hopefully the dialect as well, for the odd question when all else fails.

And for anyone needing a professional translation that takes these things into mind, you can always turn to Trusted Translations.

Spanish version: A la caza del modismo