A Brief Overview On Idiomatic Translation Persian translation jobs
Home More Articles Join as a Member! Post Your Job - Free! All Translation Agencies

A Brief Overview On Idiomatic Translation

Become a member of TranslationDirectory.com at just $12 per month (paid per year)


Translation typically has been used to transfer written or spoken SL texts to equivalent written or spoken TL texts. In general, the purpose of translation is to reproduce various kinds of texts—including religious, literary, scientific, and philosophical texts—in another language and thus making them available to wider readers.

If language were just a classification for a set of general or universal concepts, it would be easy to translate from an SL to a TL; furthermore, under the circumstances the process of learning an L2 would be much easier than it actually is. In this regard, Culler (1976) believes that languages are not nomenclatures and the concepts of one language may differ radically from those of another, since each language articulates or organizes the world differently, and languages do not simply name categories; they articulate their own (p.21-2). The conclusion likely to be drawn from what Culler (1976) writes is that one of the troublesome problems of translation is the disparity among languages. The bigger the gap between the SL and the TL, the more difficult the transfer of message from the former to the latter will be.

The difference between an SL and a TL and the variation in their cultures make the process of translating a real challenge. Among the problematic factors involved in translation such as form, meaning, style, proverbs, idioms, etc., the present paper is going to concentrate mainly on the procedures of translating CSCs in general and on the strategies of rendering allusions in particular.

Problems of equivalence

The translation of idioms takes us a stage further in considering the question of meaning and translation, for idioms, like puns, are culture bound. When two languages have corresponding idiomatic expressions that render the idea of prevarication, and so in the process of interlingual translation one idiom is substituted for another. That substitution is made not on the basis of the linguistic elements in the phrase, nor on the basis of a corresponding or similar image contained in the phrase, but on the function of the idiom. The SL phrase is replaced by a TL phrase that serves the same purpose in the TL culture, and the process involves the substitution of SL sign for TL sign.

Dagut's distinction between 'translation' and 'reproduction', like Catford's distinction between 'literal' and 'free' translation does not take into account the view that sees translation as semiotic transformation. In his definition of translation equivalence, Popovic distinguishes four types:

(1) Linguistic equivalence, where there is homogeneity on the linguistic level of both SL and TL texts, i.e. word for word translation.

(2) Paradigmatic equivalence, where there is equivalence of 'the elements of a paradigmatic expressive axis', i.e. elements of grammar, which Popovic sees as being a higher category than lexical equivalence.

(3) Stylistic (translational) equivalence, where there is 'functional equivalence of elements in both original and translation aiming at an expressive identity with an invariant of identical meaning'.

(4) Textual (syntagmatic) equivalence, where there is equivalence of the syntagmatic structuring of a text, i.e. equivalence of form and shape.

Translation involves far more than replacement of lexical and grammatical items between languages and, as can be seen in the translation of idioms, the process may involve discarding the basic linguistic elements of the SL text so as to achieve Popovic's goal of 'expressive identity' between the SL and TL texts. But once the translator moves away from close linguistic equivalence, the problems of determining the exact nature of the level of equivalence aimed for begin to emerge.

Albrecht Neubert, whose work on translation is unfortunately not available to English readers, distinguishes between the study of translation as a process and as a product. He states bluntly that: 'the "missing link" between both components of a complete theory of translations appears to be the theory of equivalence relations that can be conceived for both the dynamic and the static model. The problem of equivalence, a much-used and abused term in Translation Studies, is of central importance, and although Neubert is right when he stresses the need for a theory of equivalence relations, Raymond van den Broeck is also right when he challenges the excessive use of the term in Translation Studies and claims that the precise definition of equivalence in mathematics is a serious obstacle to its use in translation theory.

Generally speaking, collocations are fairly flexible patterns of language which allow several variations in form. For example, deliver a letter, delivery of a letter, a letter has been delivered, and having delivered a letter are all acceptable collocations. In addition, although the meaning of a word often depends on what other words it occurs with, we can still say that the word in question has an individual meaning in a given collocation. Thus, dry cow means a cow which does not produce milk. We can still identify a particular meaning associated with the word dry in this collocation, and, of course, cow still retains its familiar meaning of 'a farm animal kept for its milk'. Idioms and fixed expressions are at the extreme end of the scale from collocations in one or both of these areas: flexibility of patterning and transparency of meaning. They are frozen patterns of language which allow little or no variation in form and, in the case of idioms, often carry meanings which cannot be deduced from their individual components.

In other words, one class of figurative expressions which occurs in all expressions of "at least two words which cannot be understood literally and which function as a unit semantically" (Beekman and Callow 1974: 121). An idiom such as bury the hatchet ('to become friendly again after a disagreement or a quarrel') or the long and the short of it ('the basic facts of the situation') allows no variation in form under normal circumstances. Unless s/he is consciously making a joke or attempting a play on words, a speaker or writer cannot normally do any of the following with an idiom:

1. change the order of the words in it (e.g. *'the short and the long of it');

2. delete a word from it (e.g. *'spill beans');

3. add a word to it (e.g. *'the very long and short of it'; *'face the classical music');

4. replace a word with another (e.g. *'the tall and the short of it'; *'bury a hatchet');

5. change its grammatical structure (e.g. *'the music was faced').

As their name suggests, fixed expressions such as having said that, as a matter of fact, ladies and gentlemen, and all the best, as well as proverbs such as practice what you preach and waste not want not, allow little or no variation in form. In this respect, they behave very much like idioms. Unlike idioms, however, fixed expressions and proverbs often have fairly transparent meanings. The meaning of as a matter of fact can easily be deduced from the meanings of the words which constitute it, unlike the meaning of an idiom such as pull a fast one or fill the bill. But in spite of its transparency, the meaning of a fixed expression or proverb is somewhat more than the sum meanings of its words; the expression has to be taken as one unit to establish meaning. This is true of any fixed, recurring pattern of the language. Encountering any fixed expression conjures up in the mind of the reader or hearer all the aspects of experience which are associated with the typical contexts in which the expression is used. It is precisely this feature which lies behind the widespread use of fixed and semi-fixed expressions in any language. They encapsulate all the stereotyped aspects of experience and therefore perform a stabilizing function in communication. Situation- or register- specific formulae such as Mary happy returns, Merry Christmas, Further to your letter of …, and Yours sincerely are particularly good examples of the stabilizing role and the special status that a fixed expression can assume in communication.

Examples are given below by giving a very literal translation in the first column and an idiomatic English equivalent in the second column (Ham 1956: 2).

  Literal English 
Idiomatic English
I don't have my eye on you. I don't remember you.
I've already buried my eye. I'm already ready to go.
I'll pull your eyelid. I'll ask a favor of you.
My eye is hard on you. I remember you.
My head is strong. I'm stubborn, insistent.
I'll do it with my head. I'll do it the way I think it should be done.
His ear is rotten. He is spoiled.
I ate in your tooth cavity. I ate in your absence.

The same translation principles apply for idioms as for other figures of speech. Sometimes it will be necessary to translate with a nonfigurative expression, but sometimes a good receptor language idiom may be used. The translator needs to learn to recognize the idioms and other figures of speech of the source text. The real danger comes in translating an idiom literally, since the result will usually be nonsense in the receptor language.

The translator also needs to develop a sensitivity to the use of idioms in the receptor language and use them naturally to make the translation lively and keep the style of the source language. There will often be words in the source language which are not idioms, but are best translated with an idiom. For example, the word peace is often translated with the idiom to sit down in the heart in Africa (Nida and Taber 1969: 106).

Idioms, fixed expressions, and the direction of translation

Although most idioms resist variation in form, some are more flexible than others. A person's competence in actively using the idioms and fixed expressions of a foreign language hardly ever matches that of a native speaker. The majority of translators working into a foreign language cannot hope to achieve the same sensitivity that native speakers seem to have for judging when and how an idiom can be manipulated. This lends support to the argument that translators should only work into their language of habitual use or mother tongue.

Assuming that a professional translator would, under normal circumstances, work only into his/her language of habitual use, the difficulties associated with being able to use idioms and fixed expressions correctly in a foreign language need not be addressed here. The main problems that idiomatic and fixed expressions pose in translation relate to two main areas: the ability to recognize and interpret an idiom correctly; and the difficulties involved in rendering the various aspects of meaning that an idiom or a fixed expression conveys into the target language. These difficulties are much more pronounced in the case of idioms than they are in the case of fixed expressions.

The interpretation of idioms

As far as idioms are concerned, the first difficulty that a translator comes across is being able to recognize that s/he is dealing with an idiomatic expression. This is not always so obvious. There are various types of idioms, some more easily recognizable than others. Those which are easily recognizable include expressions which violate truth conditions, such as It's raining cats and dogs, throw caution to the winds, storm in a tea cup, jump down someone's throat, and food for thought. They also include expressions which seem ill-formed because they do not follow the grammatical rules of the language, for example trip the light fantastic, blow someone to kingdom come, put paid to, the powers that be, by and large, and the world and his friend. Expressions which start with like (simile-like structures) also tend to suggest that they should not be interpreted literally. These include idioms such as like a bat out of hell and like water off a duck's back. Generally speaking, the more difficult an expression is to understand and the less sense it makes in a given context, the more likely a translator will recognize it as an idiom. Because they do not following text are easy to recognize as idioms (assuming one is not already familiar with them).

Provided a translator has access to good references works and monolingual dictionaries of idioms, or, better still, is able to consult native speakers of the language, opaque idioms which do not make sense for one reason or another can actually be a blessing in disguise. The very fact that s/he cannot make sense of an expression in a particular context will alert the translator to the presence of an idiom of some sort.

There are two cases in which an idiom can be easily misinterpreted if one is not already familiar with it.

a) Some idioms are 'misleading'; they seem transparent because they offer a reasonable literal interpretation and their idiomatic meanings are not necessarily signaled in the surrounding text. A large number of idioms in English, and probably all languages, have both a literal and an idiomatic meaning, for example go out with ('have a romantic or sexual relationship with someone') and take someone for a ride ('deceive or cheat someone in some way'). Such idioms lend themselves easily to manipulation by speakers and writers who will sometimes play on both their literal and idiomatic meanings. In this case, a translator who is not familiar with the idiom in question may easily accept the literal interpretation and miss the play on idiom. In Farsi we have such idioms like: بازی در آورده ، به درد من نمی خورد .

b) An idiom in the source language may have a very close counterpart in the target language which looks similar on the surface but has a totally or partially different meaning. For example, the idiomatic question Has the cat had/got your tongue? is used in English to urge someone to answer a question or contribute to a conversation, particularly when their failure to do so becomes annoying. Instances of superficially identical or similar idioms which have different meanings in the source and target languages lay easy traps for the unwary translator who is not familiar with the source-language idiom and who may be tempted simply to impose a target-language interpretation on it.

Apart from being alert to the way speakers and writers manipulate certain features of idioms and to the possible confusion which could arise from similarities in form between source and target expressions, a translator must also consider the collocational environment which surrounds any expression whose meaning is not readily accessible. Idiomatic and fixed expressions have individual collocational patterns. They form collocations with other items in the text as single units and enter into lexical sets which are different from those of their individual words. Take, for instance, the idiom to have cold feet. Cold as a separate item may collocate with words like weather, winter, feel, or country. Feet on its own will perhaps collocate with socks, chilblain, smelly, etc. however, having cold feet, in its idiomatic use, has nothing necessarily to do with winter, feet, or chilblains and will therefore generally be used with a different set of collocates. In Farsi there are many idioms like that: خم به ابرو نیاوردن ، دل به دریا زدن ، سوهان روح بودن  .

The ability to distinguish senses by collocation is an invaluable asset to a translator working form a foreign language. It is often subsumed under the general umbrella of 'relying on the context to disambiguate meanings', which, among other things, means using our knowledge of collocational patterns to decode the meaning of a word or a stretch of language. Using our knowledge of collocational patterns may not always tell us what an idiom means but it could easily help us in many cases to recognize an idiom, particularly one which has a literal as well as a non-literal meaning.

The translation of idioms: difficulties

Once an idiom or fixed expression has been recognized and interpreted correctly, the next step is to decide how to translate it into the target language. The difficulties involved in translating an idiom are totally different from those involved in interpreting it. Here, the question is not whether a given idiom is transparent, opaque, or misleading. An opaque expression may be easier to translate than a transparent one. The main difficulties involved in translating idioms and fixed expressions may be summarized as follows:

a) An idiom or fixed expression may have no equivalent in the target language. The way a language chooses to express, or not express, various meanings cannot be predicted and only occasionally matches the way another language chooses to express the same meanings. One language may express a given meaning by means of a single word, another may express it by means of a transparent fixed expression, a third may express it by means of an idiom, and so on. It is therefore unrealistic to expect to find equivalent idioms and expressions in the target languages as matter of course.

Like single words, idioms and fixed expressions may be culture-specific. Formulae such as Merry Christmas and say when which relate to specific social or religious occasions provide good examples. Basnett-McGuire (1980: 21) explains that the expression say when 'is… directly linked to English social behavioral patterns' and suggests that 'the translator putting the phrase into French or German has to contend with the problem of the non-existence of a similar convention in either TL culture'.

Idioms and fixed expressions which contain culture-specific items are not necessarily untranslatable. It is not the specific items an expression contains but rather the meaning it conveys and its association with culture-specific contexts which can make it untranslatable or difficult to translate. It is not the specific items an expression contains but rather the meaning it conveys and its association with culture-specific contexts which can make it untranslatable or difficult to translate. For example, the English expression he doesn't care a fig, is nevertheless closely paralleled in Farsi by ککش هم نمی گزد . Both expressions convey the same meaning. We have many others in Farsi like: تشریف نداشتید ، چشم شما روشن ، دست شما درد نکند.

b) An idiom or fixed expression may have a similar counterpart in the target language, but its context of use may be different; the two expressions may have different connotations, for instance, or they may not be pragmatically transferable. To sing a different tune is an English idiom which means to say or do something that signals a change in opinion because it contradicts what one has said or done before. In Farsi زدن مخالف ساز also normally refers to contradictory points of view, but has quite a different usage. (Or: حالش جا آمد in Farsi).

c) An idiom may be used in the source text in both its literal and idiomatic senses at the same time. Unless the target-language idiom corresponds to the source-language idiom both in form and in meaning, the play on idiom cannot be successfully reproduced in the target text. E.g. He was deaf to his father's advice. Or: I ran short of money last week. Or: باورداشتن ; give credit to.

d) The very convention of using idioms in written discourse, the contexts in which they can be used, and their frequency of use may be different in the source and target languages. English uses idioms in many types of text, though not in all. E.g. take no thought for tomorrow; چوفردا شود فکرفردا کنیم . Or: stick to your guns.

Fernando and Flavell (1981: 85) discuss the difference in rhetorical effect of using idioms in general and of using specific types of idiom in the source and target languages and quite rightly conclude that 'Translation is an exacting art. Idiom more than any other feature of language demands that the translator be not only accurate but highly sensitive to the rhetorical nuances of the language.'

The translation of idioms: strategies

The way in which an idiom or a fixed expression can be translated into another language depends on many factors. It is not only a question of whether an idiom with a similar meaning is available in the target language. Other factors include, for example, the significance of the specific lexical items which constitute the idiom, i.e. whether they are manipulated elsewhere in the source text, as well as the appropriateness or inappropriateness of using idiomatic language in a given register in the target language. The acceptability or non-acceptability of using any of the strategies described below will therefore depend on the context in which a given idiom is translated. The first strategy described, that of finding an idiom of similar meaning and similar form in the target language, may seem to offer the ideal solution, but that is not necessarily always the case. Questions of style, register, and rhetorical effect must also be taken into consideration. Fernando and Flavell are correct in warning us against the 'strong unconscious urge in most translators to search hard for an idiom in the receptor-language, however inappropriate it may be' (1981, 82).

1) Using an idiom of similar meaning and form

This strategy involves using an idiom in the target language which conveys roughly the same meaning as that of the source-language idiom and, in addition, consists of equivalent lexical items. This kind of match can only occasionally be achieved. For example, step by step قدم به قدم , break someone's heart قلب کسی را شکستن  , face to face رودررو   .

2) Using an idiom of similar meaning but dissimilar form

It is often possible to find an idiom or fixed expression in the target language which has a meaning similar to that of the source idiom or expression, but which consists of different lexical items. For example, He did not turn a hair خم به ابرو نیاوردن  , He is Jack-of-all- trades همه کاره وهیچ کاره  , I've learnt it by fits and starts جسته گریخته یاد گرفته ام .

3) Translation by paraphrase

This is by far the most common way of translating idioms when a match cannot be found in the target language or when it seems inappropriate to use idiomatic language in the target text because of differences in stylistic preferences of the source and target languages. For example, prepare the ground; create a good/suitable situation for something to take place. Or: for the best; unpleasant now but will turn out well in the future. In Farsi we have some expressions like: کار از کار گذشته است ، با رئیس چپ افتاده است ، توی خط این چیزها نیست  which need to be paraphrased.

4) Translation by omission

As with single words, an idiom may sometimes be omitted altogether in the target text. This may be because it has no close match in the target language, its meaning cannot be easily paraphrased, or for stylistic reasons.

5) Strategy of compensation

One strategy which cannot be adequately illustrated, simply because it would take up a considerable amount of space, is the strategy of compensation. Briefly, this means that one may either omit or play down a feature such as idiomaticity at the point where it occurs in the source text and introduce it elsewhere in the target text. This strategy is not restricted to idiomaticity or fixed expressions and may be used to make up for any loss or meaning, emotional force, or stylistic effect which may not be possible to reproduce directly at a given point in the target text.

Using the typical phraseology of the target language- its natural collocations, its own fixed and semi-fixed expressions, the right level of idiomaticity, and so on- will greatly enhance the readability of your translations. Getting this level right means that your target text will feel less 'foreign' and, other factors being equal, may even pass for an original. But naturalness and readability are also affected by other linguistic features.


Although some stylists consider translation "sprinkled with footnotes" undesirable, their uses can assist the TT readers to make better judgment of the ST contents. In general, it seems that the procedures 'functional equivalent' and 'notes' would have a higher potential for conveying the concepts underlying the culture-specific concepts embedded in a text; moreover, it can be claimed that a combination of these strategies would result in a more accurate understanding of the culture-specific concepts than other procedures.

Various strategies opted for by translators in rendering idioms seem to play a crucial role in recognition and perception of connotations carried by them. If a novice translator renders a literary text without paying adequate attention to the idioms, the connotations are likely not to be transferred as a result of the translator's failure to acknowledge them. They will be entirely lost to the majority of the TL readers; consequently, the translation will be ineffective.

It seems necessary for an acceptable translation to produce the same (or at least similar) effects on the TT readers as those created by the original work on its readers. A translator does not appear to be successful in his challenging task of efficiently rendering the culture-specific concepts and figurative language when he sacrifices, or at least minimizes, the effect of idioms in favor of preserving graphical or lexical forms of source language. In other words, a competent translator is well-advised not to deprive the TL reader of enjoying, or even recognizing, the idioms either in the name of fidelity or brevity.

It can be claimed that the best translation method seem to be the one which allows translator to utilize 'notes.' Furthermore, employing 'notes' in the translation, both as a translation strategy and a translation procedure, seems to be indispensable so that the foreign language readership could benefit from the text as much as the ST readers do.


Baker, Mona., In Other Words, London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Bassnett, Susan., Translation Studies: Revised Edition, London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

Larson, Mildred L., Meaning-Based Translation, University Press of America, 1984.

Mollanazar, Hossein., Principles and Methodology of Translation, Tehran: The Center for Studying and Compiling University Books in Humanities (SAMT), 2001.

Munday, Jeremy., Introducing Translation Studies, Theories and Applications, London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

Phythian, B. A., A Concise Dictionary of English Idioms, Hodder and Stoughton Educational, 1989.

Published - October 2008

Submit your article!

Read more articles - free!

Read sense of life articles!

E-mail this article to your colleague!

Need more translation jobs? Click here!

Translation agencies are welcome to register here - Free!

Freelance translators are welcome to register here - Free!

Free Newsletter

Subscribe to our free newsletter to receive news from us:

Recommend This Article
Read More Articles
Search Article Index
Read Sense of Life Articles
Submit Your Article
Obtain Translation Jobs
Visit Language Job Board
Post Your Translation Job!
Register Translation Agency
Submit Your Resume
Find Freelance Translators
Buy Database of Translators
Buy Database of Agencies
Obtain Blacklisted Agencies
Advertise Here
Use Free Translators
Use Free Dictionaries
Use Free Glossaries
Use Free Software
Vote in Polls for Translators
Read Testimonials
Read More Testimonials
Read Even More Testimonials
Read Yet More Testimonials
And More Testimonials!
Admire God's Creations

christianity portal
translation jobs


Copyright © 2003-2023 by TranslationDirectory.com
Legal Disclaimer
Site Map