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Localization of Idioms

Idioms play a part in our manner of speaking and relating. Webster’s Dictionary defines an idiom as, “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own.” These expressions are ways a culture identifies or gives metaphors to the life around it. Their roots reflect a general mindset of society in that location. When taken out of context or broken down word for word, they make little or no sense.

One of the most challenging parts of translation is that of idioms. The meaning of an expression for the reader in the translated language should have the same feeling for the reader in the original language.

If someone said to you, “It’s a blessing in disguise,” you would know exactly what they meant. But take these expressions outside your country and the thought, or even an expression with color association, when translated literally, will most likely result in a blank stare from the listener.

Below is a group of common English idioms, as well as equivalents in Spanish. Notice how much of a difference there are in some phrases, while others still have some of the same ideas.

English: “It’s a blessing in disguise.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “No hay mal que por bien no venga.”
Literal translation in English: It’s better that it didn’t come.  No evil deed comes without any good/benefit.

English: “Knock on wood.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “Toque madera .”
Literal translation in English: Touch wood.

English: “Once in a blue moon.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “De higos a brevas / cada muerte de Obispo.”
Literal translation in English: “From late figs to early figs / Each death of an Obispo.” (Obispo refers to an unknown bishop who did not leave his post till his death)

English: “A hard pill to swallow.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “Un trago muy amargo.”
Literal translation in English:  A very bitter sip.

English: “The straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “La gota que desborda  el vaso.”
Literal translation in English: The drop that makes the glass overflow.”

English: “To bite off more than you can chew.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “Meterse en camisa de once varas.”
Literal translation in English: To wear a shirt of 11 varas (each vara equals around 1/3 of an inch).

English: “All over the map.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “Sin rumbo y sin sentido.”
Literal translation in English: Aimlessly and without direction.

English: “To let the cat out of the bag.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “Levantar la liebre.”
Literal translation in English: Lift the hare.

English: “Between a rock and a hard place.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “entre la espada y la pared.”
Literal translation in English: Between the sword and the wall.

English: “When it rains, it pours.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “llueve sobre mojado.”
Literal translation in English: It rains over what’s already soaking wet.

English: “To fit like a glove.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “ir como anillo al dedo.”
Literal translation in English: Goes like a ring on a finger.

English: “To turn a blind eye.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “Hacer la vista gorda.”
Literal translation in English: To make the view fat.

English: “It’s a piece of cake.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “Es pan comido.”
Literal translation in English: It’s an eaten piece of bread.

English: “Two heads are better than one.”
Actual Spanish Equivalent: “Cuatro ojos ven más que dos.”
Literal translation in English: Four eyes see more than two.