Sunday, March 29

Take on the Idiom Challenge

Sometimes it is difficult to find the right words to express our thoughts, so we use a set phrase or word that conveys an idea that is unique to native speakers of a particular language and culture. According to Wikipedia, “an idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be determined by the literal definition of the phrase itself, but refers instead to a figurative meaning that is known only through common use.”1 Idioms often use an image or symbol to describe something as clearly as possible, so that we can make our point as effectively as possible. For example, “in a nutshell” suggests the idea of conveying a lot of information within very few words. (A Spanish equivalent would be en pocas palabras.) Idioms tend to be informal and are best used in spoken language, rather than written.

Idioms pose a particular challenge for translators/interpreters working into their B-languages. For example, if a translator is unfamiliar with the expression “to kick the bucket,” he or she might incorrectly offer a literal target-language rendition. In the English expression “to kick the bucket,” a non-native speaker who is familiar only with the meaning of kick and bucket would be unable to determine the expression’s actual meaning (“to die”). Although the expression can refer literally to the act of striking a bucket with a foot, native speakers rarely use it that way because of its culturally accepted figurative meaning. Ideally, an interpreter/translator should find an idiomatic expression in the target language that equivalently conveys the same message as the source idiomatic expression. For example, if translating this phrase for a primarily Mexican readership, two possible Spanish equivalents of “to kick the bucket” include petatear or estirar la pata.

Using idioms effectively generally requires the translator/interpreter to have some localized foundational knowledge or experience regarding the culture where they are used. Idioms are not so much part of a language as they are a part of a culture. Since idioms are typically used as colloquial metaphors within a particular culture, they are often difficult to decipher outside of that local context. Some idioms can be more universal than others, however, and can be easily translated so that the metaphorical meaning can be more easily determined.

It is especially important to be aware of the context in which a phrase is used. According to Holly Mikkelson, a seemingly simple idiom like “make out” could mean: to decipher (as in “I can’t make out his handwriting”); to pretend (“She is making herself out to be much more important than she really is”); to fare (“How did you make out?”); to prepare (“I am making out my will”); or to fondle (“They were making out in the back seat”). The same English phrase can be interpreted in multiple ways based on the context in which it is used. Context sets the stage for the words we use and we must pay particular attention to it if we intend on finding an idiom that is of true semantic equivalence.

Idioms can be very difficult to translate, yet they are a vital and dynamic part of language and culture. Interpreters/translators should never omit an idiomatic expression when it is used in the source language. Instead, they should be prepared to conduct linguistic and cultural research until they find an appropriate equivalent in the target language. The best way to learn idioms is to select and actively incorporate them into your speech. Select idioms that are useful to you. Write them in a relevant and practical sentence so that you will be able to remember their meaning easily. Every time you encounter a new idiom, enter it in a file, along with other words and idioms that have similar meanings, and have it handy on your computer for easy reference.

For a searchable compilation of idioms, visit The Free Dictionary by Farlex (

1. Wikipedia (

2. Mikkelson, Holly: The Art of Working with Interpreters: A Manual for Healthcare Professionals (

Related Links and References

Dictionary of British Slang

Idiom Connection

Lexscripta Dictionaries of Slang

Weibel, Peter. The Big Red Book of Spanish Idioms (McGraw-Hill, 2004)