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)


Sylvia Gil said...

Peores nalgas tiene mi suegra or
Peores nalgas tiene un sapo y los arrastra por el suelo.

It’s better than nothing.

Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo.

With age comes experience.

Dee Traverzo Galarza said...

El que va a Sevilla, pierde su silla.

Esta lloviendo a cantaros.

Me esta tirando el pelo.

Losers, weepers; finders, keepers.
It's raining cats and dogs.
He's pulling my leg.

Maria Velasquez said...

-Matar dos pajaros de un tiro.
-Le patina el coco.
-De tal palo, tal astilla.
-Camaron ques so duerme, se lo lleva la corriente.

-Kill two birds with one stone.
-He has a screw loose.
-A chip off the old block.
-You snooze, you lose.

Jocabed P. Nevarez said...

Like father, like son.
De tal palo, tal astilla.

A piece of cake.
Como pan comido.

All bark and no bite.
Perro que ladra, no muerde.

lulu said...

El que no llora no mama.
The squeaki wheel gets the grease.

Aprendiz de todo, oficial de nada.
Jack of all trades, master of none.

Al tochemoche.

Bala que zumba no mata.
The bullet you hear does not kill.

Cara de beato, uñas de gato.
Kind face, bad habits.

Cada oveja con su pareja.
Birds of a feather flock together.

Con dinero hasta la mona baila.
Money talks.

Dicho y hecho.
Said and done.

Libro cerrado no saca letrado.
You can't judge a book by its cover.

Anonymous said...

Don't get on the bandwagon.
No seas borrego.

just what the doctor ordered.
como me lo receto el doctor.

Cut class.
Hacerse la pinta>

He was the fifth wheel.
Estaba haciendo mosca.

What a drag dude.
Que mala onda guey.

C. Alejandra Contreras

vinestreet said...

This is a great post. I've been slowly studying The Big Red Book of Spanish Idioms (Peter Weibel) and I've found it helpful--since I am not familiar with many Spanish idioms (yet).

French Translator said...

I discovered a site that helps you translate texts in any language you want. French Translator it is like a free dictionary. I think it is new.It works great!

Iliana QM said...

1. The pot calling the kettle black.

Cachicamo diciéndole a morrocoy ‘conchuo’

Este es un refrán muy popular en Venezuela. In vernacular, al caparazón de un cachicamo también se le dice ‘concha’. Sé que esta palabra puede ser vulgar en algunos paises hispanohablantes; Mexico en particular??? pero para nosotros no lo es.

2. You snooze, you lose.

Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente

Iliana Quintero

Iliana QM said...

I posted a duplicate. Sooo

2. Kick the bucket = Estirar la pata


Lucy D. said...

"A otro perro con eso hueso" (this has to be my favorite idiom in Spanish)

Don't give me that

Zuri RT said...

Catch some z's

Dar una cabezada/pegar un pestanazo

Out of the blue

De la nada

Lucy D said...

"El que se acuesta con niños, mojado se levanta"

He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.

Language Translation said...

True, translating Idioms is very difficult without local knowledge and result can be some time be very funny.

Dianna Alvarez said...

Solo el tiempo dira
Only time will tell

Y para acabarla de molar
and to top it off

Kit said...

What goes around, comes around...

Donde las dan, las toman


Arrieros somos que en el camino andamos.

Berta Aguirre said...

Algo es algo, dijo el calvo

Something is better than nothing

Sandra Smallshaw said...

Dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres.
Show me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are.

La mejor palabra es la que no se dice.
Silence is Golden.

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Ana Gonzalez said...

Mientras que en mi casa estoy, rey soy.

A mans home is his castel.

vanefabara said...

Out of the blue: de la nada
Like a bat out of hell: como alma que lleva el diablo

Julie Ziegler said...

A lo hecho, pecho.
El pasado pisado.

What's done is done.

M.Garay said...

Es mejor perder un minuto en la vida, que la vida en un minuto.

Better late than never.

El que madruga, Dios le ayuda.

The early bird catches the worm.

Cynthia Viramontes said...

I think it is important to know the meaning and various contexts of the idioms from our own native language as well.

mariab said...

Ojos que no ven, corazon que no siente

Out of sight, out of mind

Ana Gonzalez said...

Mas vale pajaro en mano que cien volando...

A bird in the hand is worth more than 100 flying...

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush...

vanefabara said...

Every cloud has a silver lining = Algo bueno debe tener

vanefabara said...

They that live by the sword shall die by the sword = Quien a hierro mata a hierro muere

You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear = Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda

J Mosby said...

I've really enjoyed reading the idioms everyone has posted. These are some I like:

¿A cuántos estamos? ¿A cuántos estamos hoy? (What day is it?)

helar la sangre (literally, to freeze the blood): to scare stiff, to curdle the blood. Scare spitless.)

irse por las ramas — to beat around the bush, to get sidetracked

Anne Spiessbach said...

Buscar a diestra y siniestra - search everywhere

estar hasta las narices - to be fed up

Sharon said...

Good to see some very useful idioms here – many new to me.

Here’s one of my favorites:

El necio es atrevido y el sabio comedido
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread

And because I’m Irish…..

A beber y a tragar, que el mundo se va a acabar
Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die

P. Sznip said...

What a wonderful compilation of idioms. Below are some of my favorites.

armase un lio- to raise hell

andar como un burro sin mecate- be wild and out of control

Ryan said...

Vuelta de podenco=A severe beating, flogging.

A vuelta de cabeza, o de ojo=Directly; in an instant.

Ryan said...

Tumbo de mar=The breaking of the waves on the shore.
Tumbo de dado=Imminent peril.

Susana P. said...

Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know = Mas vale malo por conocido que bueno por conocer

Birds of a feather flock together = Dios los cria y ellos se juntan