How To: Translate Figures of Speech

Category: Culture, Language

Have you ever walked like a cat around hot porridge? Or thrown flowers at yourself? You may have, but not even known you were doing it.

These literal translations of figures of speech are examples of the wit and insight that all cultures employ to convey truisms, humor and the subtleties of human behavior.

But how do you translate figures of speech?

Answer: With great difficulty. Think of the translator who has to translate Aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten mache, which literally means “To make an elephant out of a mosquito,” into other languages. In this case, there is an English equivalent: “To make a mountain out of a molehill.”

But what do you do when there is no such thing? For example, in Flemish, there is a phrase that in English means “A hair in the butter.” It’s used to describe a situation or relationship that is awkward and uncomfortable, but one that you can’t really talk about. (As if you were at someone’s house and there was a hair in their butter, but it would be rude to point it out.)

What would be the equivalent phrase in English? Can you feel the pain of translating idioms?

Certainly, a very talented and experienced translator will be able to find a workable solution. Still, we recommend vetting concepts to come up with themes that work effectively across cultures. Especially if the expression is basis for an international ad campaign, where the impact of the creative piece is dependent upon their cultural and linguistic relevance, your translation could easily fall flat. You might be left scrambling for a catchy equivalent, and on top of that, have to deal with the extra costs of switching out images in addition to ad copy.

Despite their translation challenges, many expressions resonate across cultures and, in fact, many cultures share similar figures of speech rooted in ancient religious writings, literature, or, for Western languages in particular, Medieval Latin. Can you think of some phrases that do translate well?

To see a table of common expressions from around the world, see our article, Saying What You Mean: Translating Figures of Speech.