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Idioms and the benefits of professional translation services

English Polish translatorsPosted by Fiules Fri, October 05, 2012 20:23:36

The translation of idioms can be tricky.

Among the many Italian phrases that I heard for the first time during my year abroad in Bergamo, Italy, the one that has stuck with me is “In bocca al lupo”, literally meaning “into the mouth of the wolf”. It was exchanged by students before going into an exam to wish each other good luck. Far more exciting than breaking a leg! Idiomatic expressions like these are one of the many pitfalls for a translator. They add colour and depth to the language but they aren’t always easily understood, especially when translated literally. Native speakers grow up knowing these phrases but foreign speakers must learn them as another part of the language. They can often show links to the culture of the country and require certain cultural knowledge, which a native speaker already has, to be understood. Experienced translators come to know how to tackle these parts of language but often it is steeping this in mind, can anything really beat professional translation services?

Translators frequently come across idiomatic expressions in their work. They must recognise that a literal translation is not required and then the search begins! They need to find an adequate expression in the target language to put across the meaning intended by the author. Take the German expression “Wer A sagt, muss auch B sagen”, translate it into English and you get the phrase “If you say A, you must also say B” but this has no real significance because it is not used in the English language and culture. An equivalent idiomatic expression in English might be “In for a penny, in for a pound” with the meaning that you should start what you finish, if you’ve bet a penny you might as well take the risk and bet a pound.

The problem is that idioms often contain words that have no connection to their original meaning when used in this particular phrase. The well known English expression “It’s raining cats and dogs” obviously does not mean that cats and dogs are literally falling from the sky but people do use this phrase to express that it is raining heavily. There are various suggestions as to where this expression originated, ranging from mythology to an 18th Century author. Whereas to someone learning English, this expression might seem very odd, many native speakers of English have grown up with this turn of phrase and understand its meaning. The same phrase exists in German, “Es regnet Katze und Hunde” so miscommunication is avoided. In Italian though the equivalent would be “piove a catinelle” “it’s raining as from basins” – not too distant from the English “It’s raining buckets”. Unfortunately, trying to find an equivalent in other languages by beginning with a literal translation when there is very little similarity between the sayings may only lead to further confusion; even more reason to leave it to the professional translation services!

In many ways translation is an art form and idiomatic expressions are one of many intricacies that make professional translation such an interesting job! Regardless of how effective machine translation seems at times, it cannot compare to professional translation services because it is unable to deal with these aspects of language. They are an essential part of language which cannot be translated using theoretical constructs and so need a professional to handle them with care!

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