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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.”
Idioms from around the world

Idioms of the World

This article, written by Sam Brown, originally appears on the Comtec translation blog. Used with the author’s consent.

Foreign idioms are always a source of trouble, and sometimes hilarity, when trying to translate them. Every translator knows this but it was the post by Matt Lindley for Hotel Club that really got the team at Comtec thinking. After reading his piece we discussed the funniest foreign phrases we could think of and came up with the following 10 which we love. Read more

French Idioms

French Idioms

French Idioms and their English Equivalents

An idiom is an expression whose meaning cannot be deduced from the literal definitions of the words that make up the expression. In other words you couldn’t look up the meaning of each word in a dictionary and comprehend the meaning of the sentence.

Idioms are often deeply ingrained into our culture, going back many generations and used without thinking. Idioms are often funny when taken out of context or spoken to a student of English (who will have no choice but to take the meaning literally). “It’s raining cats and dogs” does not mean that there are cats and dogs falling out of the sky. This makes idioms very hard to translate and represent effectively in a foreign language.

To illustrate how funny idioms can be we have prepared a list of French Idioms and their English equivalents below.

If you have a translation project that involves the use of idioms or colloquialisms please highlight their use in the source text before sending them to K International. We offer a transcreation service that will allows us to re-engineer the text making it suitable for the market in which it is intended for, in other words we will not translate “it’s raining cats and dogs” literally we’ll use ‘Il pleut des cordes’ if the text is for the French speaking market in France.

French Idiom
(English Translation)
English Equivalent
Il pleut des cordes
(it’s raining ropes)
I’s raining cats and dogs
Avoir une dent contre quelqu’un
(to have a tooth against someone)
To have a grudge against someone
C’est la fin des haricots!
(It’s the end of the beans)
That’s the last straw
Chercher midi à quatorze heures
(To look for midday at 2pm)
To over complicate things
Etre trempé jusqu’aux os
(To be soaked to the bones)
To be soaked to the skin
Faire choux blanc
(to make white cabbage)
To draw a blank
Faire d’une pierre deux coups
(To hit twice with the same stone)
To kill two birds with one stone
Panne d’oreiller
(pillow failure)
To sleep in (usually when you are late for work / an appointment)
Se noyer dans un verre d’eau
(To drown in a glass of water)
To make a mountain out of a molehill
tirer les plans sur la comète
(to draw up plans on the comet)
To count one’s chickens before they’ve hatched
Voir 36 chandelles
(to see 36 candles)
To see stars
Vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre
(To want the butter and the money for the butter)
To want your cake and eat it too