Idioms, sayings, proverbs and expressions are part of every culture. They reflect, in great part, our ancestry, culture and philosophy as members of a specific nation or geographical community. As common as idioms are, they could very well be one of the hardest challenges for translators in their quest to localize content. It might be even worse for interpreters who, most probably lacking the time to do on-the-spot research as most translators do, have to come up with an appropriate adaptation for it. Tragically, most idioms, proverbs or sayings may end up being translated literally, losing all intended meaning once it is expressed in the target language. There are plenty of examples out there where we see texts having to be either re-translated, or delivered to clients with mistranslations which translates (pun intended) into delays in deliveries or losing money because the client won’t pay for a poor translation.
Let’s see some examples. In Arabic, there’s and expression used to express love for someone else, commonly used from mothers to their children which is To’oborni (تقبرني). This literally translates as “You bury me,” an odd sentence to be said in English, but it means something along the lines of “I love you so much that I’d rather die before you so that you can have a longer life.” It goes without saying that it also reflects what should be the natural course of life, with parents hardly accepting the passing away of their issue.
We have to be really careful when we encounter these types of expressions. Although sometimes we might find something that would have no equivalent in our target language, we have to dig deeper and do our best to find an appropriate adaptation.
Another example is a common Spanish expression which goes: No tener pelos en la lengua (literally translated as “Not having hairs on one’s tongue”). This expression is used when referring to someone who is straight forward or who tells it like it is.
Continuing with the Spanish-English pairing, it just gets harder as we move from simple “expressions” to more complex idioms or proverbs. A common Venezuelan idiom for example is Chivo que se devuelve se esnuca, something like “A Goat that turns back breaks its neck,” which means not to have second thoughts or regrets at the last minute. In Argentina, a very common one is No hay tu Tía (literally, “There’s not your Aunt”), a really odd one even for non-argentines native Spanish speakers. This expression comes from the name of a medication used by the Arabs called “atutía” or “tuthía,” which was said to cure all illnesses. The proverb comes from No hay atutía (“There’s no atutía”) and it meant that a certain illness had no cure, even taking such medicine. In time, it became “No hay tu Tía.”
The challenge goes beyond simply translating to and from two different languages. Using Spanish as our source, let’s see a couple variations of the same idiom depending on the country you are in. Back to Venezuelan expressions, in Venezuela it is said: Ni lava ni presta la batea and in the southern cone of the continent we hear Ni come ni deja comer. Both meaning the same thing “A person who won’t let another make use of something even if that person is not using it,” referring to selfish greedy people. This would be the equivalent of “having a dog-in-the-manger attitude.”
So, localizing content isn’t easy most of the times; but, with the right research, we can be certain we will deliver a quality job and keep our clients happy.