We’re in an era where the Googles and Facebooks of the world have become exceedingly good at translating posts, articles and entire websites into multiple languages in the time it takes to click the option to do so. But while those translations can help you basically get by, there’s a few things computer translation can’t handle. One of the best examples of its limitations is the idiom.
Idioms are popular expressions that don’t quite make literal sense, but have a language and/or culture specific meaning and purpose. Some English examples include: “break a leg”, “under the weather” and “calling it a day”. Literal translations of those would make no sense.
There are also, of course, expressions that do make sense with a little bit of intuiting: “hitting two birds with one stone” and “biting off more than you can chew” are two examples of idioms that can be translated literally word for word while retaining their intended meaning.
In each of those cases, translating idioms requires a little bit of know-how and creativity. This is where the human mind and its knowledge of the intricacies of context and connection of region, country, subject and tone comes exceedingly handy:
In all cases, a translator needs to know if there’s an equivalent to an idiom in the language he/she is translating to. If one exists but the translator is unaware and chooses to use his/her own words, this isn’t an ideal translation. For example, “hitting two birds with one stone” coincidentally exists in several languages, but may use different subjects than birds and stones. A literal translation of the still easy to intuit idiom will sound odd and inauthentic to a native speaker. This is one example of what makes the difference between a robotic translation and a proper culturally aware one.
And in cases where no idiom equivalent exists, a translator needs to get those creative juices flowing. What matters in an idiom is the meaning it is trying to convey. Idioms like “under the weather” are simple to deal with. Simply replacing it with a translation of “feeling sick/unwell” does the trick. Idioms like “playing devil’s advocate”, short as they are, have an added layer of nuance to them. Finding a way to quickly and efficiently convey that idiom in a non-confusing manner isn’t easy, and there are many possible routes to take with it, with varying degrees of success and quality. Translating “playing devil’s advocate” to a person is “taking an opposing side to assess the quality of an argument or position” is clunky and overlong, but saying someone is “debating from the opposing view” is cleaner and quicker. This methodology is key to a proper translation of idioms and any text as a whole, and one that especially remains integral in many of its fields, from technical to prose to hard news.