Common Idioms in Translation

An idiom is a common figurative expression with a widely-understood meaning; for example’ “the Devil is in the details.” English has at least 25,000 of these phrases. Since idioms aren’t meant to be taken literally, they present a special problem for translators.  Sure, you could translate them word-for-word, but the unless the expression is understood as an idiom in both languages, you’ll only confuse your audience.

Instead, a translator needs to know if there is an equivalent idiom in the language the text is to be translated into. If there’s an equivalent phrase that expresses the same idea, the translator can just substitute it for the English version, as long as the tone fits and is appropriate. If not, another phrase that accurately conveys the intended meaning must be used.

Here are some examples of common English idioms, “translated” into their equivalents in other languages:

It’s raining cats and dogs

  • Irish: “Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí.” Literally, “It’s throwing cobbler’s knives.”
  • Greek: “Βρέχει καρεκλοπόδαρα” “It’s raining chair legs.”
  • Danish: “Det regner skomagerdrenge.” “It’s raining shoemaker’s apprentices.”

Kick the bucket

  • French:Manger des pissenlits par la racine .” “To eat dandelions by the root.”
  • Danish: “At stille træskoene” “To take off the clogs.”
  • Latvian: “Nolikt karoti” “To put the spoon down.”

When pigs fly

  • Spanish: “Cuando las ranas críen pelo.” When frogs grow hair.”
  • Thai:  “Ton sē wēn pit.” “When the 7-11 is closed.”
  • French: “Quand les poules auront des dents” “When chicken have teeth.

The early bird gets the worm

  • Italian: “Chi dorme non piglia pesci.” “He who sleeps doesn’t catch any fish.”
  • Swedish: “Först till kvarn får först mala.” “First to the mill gets to grind first.”
  • German: “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund.” “Morning has gold in its mouth.”

It’s all Greek to me

  • Italian: “Per me è arabo.”  “It’s Arabic to me.” 
  • Greek: “Íne gia ména kinézika.” “It’s Chinese to me.”
  • Turkish: “Olaya fransız kaldım.” “I am French to the conversation.”
6 replies
  1. Michael Sappir
    Michael Sappir says:

    Great post!

    I have one addition: German has “der frühe Vogel fängt den Wurm”, exactly equivalent to “the early bird gets the worm” (well, “catches”, really.) And in my time in Germany I think I heard this much more than the “Morgenstund” one.

    Reply
  2. Nico
    Nico says:

    Nice post.

    “It’s all Greek to me.” in German is “Für mich sind das böhmische Dörfer” (It’s bohemian villages to me)

    Reply

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  1. […] Idioms, well-known phrases of figurative language like “It’s raining cats and dogs,” are to languages as spices are to cooking. Often peculiar, charming and funny, they add a distinctive local flavor to everyday speech. They also don’t translate very well. […]

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