By GeaSpeak Team | 2022-12-23
Idioms: A Fascinating World with its Challlenges

What are idioms?

If you speak English, you have probably heard the expressions “when pigs fly,” to say that something has little chances of happening, “it’s a piece of cake,” to describe something that is very easy to do, or “to feel under the moon,” to say that you are not feeling well. All of them are idioms, i.e., “expressions in the usage of a language that are peculiar to themselves either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of their elements or in its grammatically atypical use of words” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).

Some Resources

Idioms abound in language and pepper every conversation. Surely, they can be of great interest to all of those who like learning about different languages and cultures. In order to understand them, they shouldn’t be taken literally. Fortunately, there are idiom dictionaries that can come in handy whenever we are faced with a new idiom:

Moreover, if you are interested in learning idioms and expressions in Spanish, you can check the online dictionary of idiomatic expressions in Spanish DiLEA (Diccionario de Locuciones Idiomáticas del Español Actual).

Idioms and Culture

Idioms are culture-bound: they come from the unique history of the people who conventionalized them. In some cases, however, we may find idioms with similar form and meaning among different languages. English and Spanish share some examples:

  • “To kill two birds with one stone” and “matar dos pájaros de un tiro,” to refer to achieving two aims at once.
  • “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” and “no poner todos los huevos en la misma canasta,” to mean you shouldn’t risk everything on the success of one venture.
  • “Better late than never” and “mejor tarde que nunca,” i.e., it is better for someone to do something late than not doing it at all.
  • “To cross the line” and “pasarse de la raya,” said when someone has gone too far or has done something unacceptable.

However, idioms are not universal. In many (if not most) cases, idioms are rooted in the culture of a country and don’t have direct equivalents in other languages. Take the case of Argentina, where soccer is such a huge part of the national identity that we may come across expressions such as:

Moreover, in the United Kingdom, where tea is regarded as the national drink and plays a predominant role and social function in British culture, we may hear expressions that are related to this drink, like:

In addition, in Chinese, we can find idioms related to rice:

Idioms and Translation

If truth be told, despite their beauty, idioms can be a pain in the neck for translators. As their meanings are so tightly connected with the culture they are part of, they present quite interesting challenges to translate them. Even though linguistic knowledge is important, cultural knowledge is what allows translators to make sense of texts and expressions.

So… How should translators go about it?

As with false friends, detecting idioms is the first step to do a good job. It is crucial that translators are able to identify when a string of words constitutes an idiom, to avoid making a literal translation.

Additionally, it is also key to find an equivalent in the target language that conveys a similar meaning. When there is no such an equivalent, translators should try to convey the source meaning without resorting to an idiom.

Finally, translators should not forget that languages have regional variants and that one idiom may sound right in one place and weird in another one. For example, when translating to Latam Spanish, it becomes paramount to search for the idiom that is most widely used across the different countries so that it can be understood by more people (especially when dealing with Neutral Spanish, where translators should keep away from localisms).