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Idioms, the interpretation and translation of idioms


I. Introduction……………………………………………………..3

II. The interpretation of idioms……………………………………4-6

III. The translation of idioms:…………………………………….7-9

III.1. The strategies in the translation of idioms………………….9

III.1.1) Using an idiom of similar meaning and form…………….9-10

IV. Conclusions……………………………………………………11

V. Bibliography……………………………………………………12

I. Introduction.

No teacher can begin to implement the Lexical Approach without a clear
understanding of lexis; this involves one important theoretical
principle, but principally it means a clear view of the essential
concepts of Collocation amd Expressions.

Every teacher is familiar with the difficulty when a student asks “Can
you say…?” and you reply “Well, you could say that, but you wouldn’t”.
The students asks “Why?”, only to receive the apparently unsatisfactory
answer “It just doesn’t sound right”. However unsatisfactory that answer
and lies at the very heart of a lexical understanding of language. A
clear understanding of why this is so is indispensable for all language
teachers; it is also helpful if learners themselves gradually develop an
understanding of why it is that their apparently simple question
receives such a see-mingly unhelpful answer. “You could, but you
wouldn’t” could almost be a slogan for the lexical Approach. Why?

The single most fundamental principle of linguistics is the
arbitrariness of the sign. The importance of this principle cannot be
over-emphasized. A particular thing is called a pen in English, while
another thing is called a book, but you cannot usefully ask why these
particular words are used for these particular objects. What is
conventionally called a pen could be called a book, but then that name
would be unlikely to be used in the way we now use it for books, as too
much confusion would almost certainly result. Homophones do occur –
sole, soul – but the meanings are usually so widely separated that there
is little danger of any misunderstanding in context. When they ask “What
is the English for…?”, learners are usually content to record the word
in their vocabulary notebook; they do not ask “Why is that the word
for…?”. But when we consider multi-word items, the classroom becomes
more difficult for the teacher unless she has truly internalized the
concept of the arbitrariness of the sign. When learners ask why,
teachers have an understandable desire and tendency to explain – but
that leads to difficulties if the explanation is theoretically unsound.

All lexical items are arbitrary – they are simply the consensus of what
has bun institutionalized, the agreed language which a particular group
do use, selected from what they could use, actual language as apposed to
theoretically possible language. Pat, pet, pit, pot and put are all
English words, with totally different meanings; sat, set, sit, sot are
also English words, but sut is not a standard item in the lexicon; it
could be used as an English word, but it isn’t. Happy Christmas, Merry
Christmas, Happy Birthday are all standard but Merry Birthday is not.

Many important linguistic phenomena are arbitrary, for example,
irregular plurals (there is nothing wrong with childs but children is
standard), or past tenses (went, but we could accept goed). Students
frequently ask why the language behaves in a certain way, and are
unhappy to be told English is like that, but unfortunately that is only
accurate answer.

II. The interpretation of idioms.

Although most idioms resist variation in form, some are more flexible
than others. For example, a BBC radio reporter once quoted a conference
speaker as saying “There was to much buck passing” (Baker and McCarthy,
1988). The common form of the idiom is pass the buck (refuse to accept
responsibility for something). And get, we would not expect to hear
There was to much way giving for give way (,allow someone to do
something you disapprove of’).

A person’s competence in actively using the idioms and fixed expressions
of 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. The Code
of Professional Ethics of the Translators’ Guild of Great Britain

“A translator shall work only into the language (in exceptional cases
this may include a second language) of which he has native knowledge.
,Native knowledge’ is defined as the ability to speak and write a
language so fluently that the expression of thought is structurally,
grammatically and idiomatically correct.

(quoted in News, 1981:278; my emphasis)

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 too main areas: the ability to recognize and
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.

As far as idioms are concerned, the first difficulty that a translator
comes across is being able to recognize that she 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 make sense if interpreted
literally, the highlighted expressions in the following text are easy to
recognize as idioms (assuming one is not already familiar with them):

His can only be done, I believe, by a full and frank airing of the
issues. I urge you all to speak your minds and not to pull any punches.

(Language and Society, No14 (1985), p.6)

Provided a translator has access to good reference 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 she 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 is
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. The following example
illustrates how easy it is to accept a literal interpretation that seems
plausible in a given context. The text from which the extract is taken
is quoted in the Translators Guild Newsletter (vol. X, January 1985, 1).

This is an extract from a highly idiomatic passage of Citizen Band (CB)
Radio special, trucking talk. Rubber duck is the first trucker in a
convoy, grandma lane is the slow lane, and pitstop refers to services or
a place where one stops for a rest. In the content of trucks, motorways,
and stopping at a services station, a literal interpretation of drain
the radiator seems highly plausible. It is, however, a special idiom
used by CB driuers and means, to urinate; use the toilet’.

(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
they failure to do so becomes annoying. A similar expression is used in
French with a totally different meaning: donner sa langue au chat (,to
give one’s tongue to the cat’), meaning to give up, for example when
asked a riddle. To pull someone’s leg, meaning to tell someone something
untrue as a Toke in order to shock them temporarily and amuse them when
they find out later that it was a Toke, is identical on the surface to
the idiom yishab iylu (,pull his leg’) which is used in several Arabic
dialects to mean tricking someone into talking about something she would
have rather kept secret. In French, a similar expression: Airer la
jamble (,pull the leg’) means to drag one’s steps. 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. Jake, for instance, the idiom to have cold feet. Cold
as a separate item may collocate with words like weather, writer, feel,
or country Jeet 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.

The ability to distinguish senses by collocation is an invaluable asset
to a translator working from 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
non-literal meaning.

III. The translation of idioms.

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 wether 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 language as a
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 religions 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’. Less
problematic, but to some extent also culture-specific, are the sort of
fixed formulae that are used in formal correspondence, such as Yours
faithfully and Yours sincerely in English. These, for instance, have no
equivalents in Arabic formal correspondence. Instead, an expression such
as watafadaly biqbuul fa’ig al-ihtiraam (literally:, and be kind enough
to accept [our] highest respects’) is often used, but it bears no direct
relationship to Yours faithfulle or Yours sincerely. The same mismatch
occurs in relation to French and several other languages.

Idioms and fixed expressions which contain culture – specific items are
not necessarily untranslatable. It is not the specific items an
expression contain but rather the meaning it conveys and its association
with culture – specific context which can make it untranslatable or
difficult to translate. For example, the English expression to carry
coals to Newcastle, though culture – specific in the sense that it
contains a reference to Newcastle coal and uses it as a measure of
abundance, is nevertheless closely paralleled in German by Eulennach
Athen tragen (,to carry owls to Athens’). Both expressions convey the
same meaning, namely: to supply something to someone who already has
plenty of it (Geauberg, 1989). In French, the same meaning can be
rendered by the expression porter de l’eau a la riviere, to carry water
to the river’. Palmer (1976) explains that in Welsh it rains ,old women
and sticks’ rather than ,cats and dogs’, and yet both expressions mean
the same thing.

(b) An idiom of 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
Chinese, chang-dui-tairi (,to sing different tunes/to sing a duet’) also
normally refers to contradictory points of view, but has quite a
different usage. It has strong political connotations and can, in
certain context, be interpreted as expressing complementary rather then
contradictory points of view.

To go to the dogs (,to lose one’s good qualities’) has a similar
counterpart in German, but whereas the English idiom can be used in
connection with a person or a place, its German counterpart can only be
used in connection with a person and often means to die or perish.
Fernando and Flauell (1981) compare to skate on thin ice (,to act
unsurely or count danger voluntarily’) with a similar Serbian
expression: navuci nekoda na tanak led (,to pull someone onto the thin
ice’). The Serbian idiom differs from the English one in that is forcing
someone into a dangerous position. Though similar in meaning, the
contexts in which the two idioms can be used are obviously different.

(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.
The following extract is from a passage which constituted part of the
British Translators’ Guild Intermediate Examinations for all languages

“In creating Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L Sayers demonstrated all the
advantages of the amateur private eye. As a wealthy dilettante he was
able to pursue the clues without the boring necessity of earning a
living. His title as the younger son of a duke pandered to reader
snobbery and to the obsessive fascination of some readers with the
lifestyle of the aristocracy, or with what they imagined that lifestyle
to be. He had sufficient influence to be able to poke his nose into the
private affairs of others where less aristocratic noses might have been
speedily bloodied”.

The above play on idiom can only be reproduced in language such as
French or German which happen to have an identical idiom or at least an
idiom which refers to interfering in other people’s affairs and which
has the equivalent of nose in it.

Another example comes from Arab Political Humour by Rishtainy (1985).
Although this book was originally written in English, the writer quotes
Tokes and anecdotes of Arab origin, so that English is in fact the
target language here. The following Toke emerged after the defeat of the
Arab forces in 1967, which resulted in the annexation of Arab territory
by Israel:

“Egypt’s Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Amin, was horrified to see
President hasser ordering a tattoo artist to print on his right arm the
names of all the Territories seized by Israel like Sinai, Gaza, Sharm
al-Shaykh, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Lest I should forget them.”

“But why tattooed? What will you do if we get them back?”

“If we get them back I’ll cut off my right arm.”

(Rishtainy, 1985:157-8; my emphasis)

Unless you are an Arab speaker, you wild fine it difficult to appreciate
the humour of the above passage, which relies totally on the
manipulation of literal and idiomatic meanings. To cut off one’s arm, or
cut off one’s right arm for emphasis, is an idiom which is similar in
meaning to pigs might fly in English. It means that something is
impossible or at least highly unlikely to happen. Neither this English
expression nor any other English idiom with a similar meaning can be
used to replace “I’ll cut off my right arm” in the above passage,
because the literal meaning of the Arabic expression is as important as
its idiomatic meaning in this context. The literal translation that the
author gives above is just as ineffective since the non-Arab reader has
no access to the idiomatic meaning. This book was translated into Arabic
by Al-Yaziji in 1988, not surprisingly, the Tokes work much in the
Arabic version.

III.1. The strategies in the translation of idioms.

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)

III.1.1) 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.

Example A.

Source text (A Hero from Zero, p.21):

“The Sultan’s magnificent income was distributed impulsively at his
command. The rain fell on the just and on the unjust.

Target text (French, p.21):

“Le revenue fabuleux du Sultan etait distribute sur un simple orolre de
sa part. La pluie tombait aussi bien sur les justes que sur les


The fantastic income of the Sultan was distributed on a simple order on
his part.

The rain was falling on the just as well as on the unjust.

Example B.

Source text (Language and Society, No.16 (1985), p7):

“Five days into what would be the final clash, Pawley ried to force
Speaker Jim Walding’s hand into calling a vote with or without the

Target text (French, p.7):

Au cenquieme jour de ce qui allait se reveler l’affronrement final,
M.Pawley tenta de forcer la main au president de la chambue Jim Walding
pour qu’il decrete une mise aux voix, avee au sans la participation des

Back translation:

On the fifth day of what was going to prove to be the final
confrontation, Mr.Pawley tried to force the hand of the president of the
Chamber, Jim Walding, to declare a placement of the vote, with or
without the participation of the conservatives.

IV. Conclusions:

In this work I have come to the following conclusions:

1. There are various types of idioms, some more easily recognizable than
others. Those which are easily recognizable include expressions which
violate truth conditions. They also include expressions which seem
ill-formed because they do not follow the grammatical rules of the

2. The first difficulty that a translator comes across is being with an
idiomatic expression. Generally speaking, the more difficult an
expression is to understand and the less sense it makes in a given
context, 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 make sense of interpreted
literally, the high-lighted expressions in the following text are easy
to recognize as idioms.

Київ «Радянська школа», 1966.

Nona Baker “In other words. A coursbook on translation”, London and New

N.M.Rayevska “English Lexicology”, Київ «Вища школа», 1979.

A.A.Sankin, R.S.Ginzburg, S.S.Khidekel, G,Y.Knyzeva “A Course in Modern
English Lexicology”, Moscow “Higher School Publishing House”, 1966.

И.В.Арнольд “The English Word”, Москва «Высшая школа», 1973.

Н.М.Раєвська “English Lexicology”, Київ 1971.

С.С.Хидекель, Р.З.Гимзбург, Г.Ю.Князева, А.А.Санкин «Английская
лексикология в выдержках и извлечениях», Ленинград «Просвещение» 1969.



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