Proverbs and idiomatic expressions

Translating is transposing a concept, a message, a symbolic idea into another language. It is therefore important to be aware of how different cultures convey the general ideas. This month, our blog features an article on the translation of proverbs and idiomatic phrases and the importance of entrusting this exercise to native-speaking translators.

Proverbs and idiomatic structures are referred to as ‘concrete sayings’ which means well-formed structures that depend largely on the culture of the country in question and of metalinguistic criteria.

When are they used? These language structures particularly appear in literature and poetry due to their metaphorical function, providing the idea expressed by the narrator with a pictorial style. However, that’s not all, they also crop up in advertising because they have a significant effect on the public, the market that an enterprise wishes to conquer: brochures, presentation catalogues for products, slogans…

This transposition exercise from one language to another is no small affair and requires skills that only native-speaking translators have.

The first indispensable skill is undoubtedly thorough knowledge of the source language in order to identify the proverb or idiomatic expression. This stage is essential for avoiding literal translations, often referred to as word-for-word. For example, in order to translate the expression ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’, the meaning risks being lost if the translator is not aware of the message hiding behind this phrase.

Once the problem is identified, the person performing the translation should be able to identify the concept transmitted in order to be aware of the equivalent used in the target language. Let’s take an example of the notion of ‘never’ of something that does not exist: where English expresses this idea with ‘when the moon turns green cheese’ or ‘when hell freezes over’, a time concept is used in French ‘dans la semaine de quatre jeudis’ (when there are four Thursdays in a week’).

Below are a few examples of proverbs and idiomatic structures in French, Italian and English which clearly highlight the expression by conveying the message:

  • To translate the idea of having already seen lots :

En voir des vertes et des pas mûres (FR) – > vederne di cotte e di crude (IT) -> To go through the mill (EN)

  • To translate the idea of telling lies :

Raconter des salades (FR) -> raccontare frottole (IT) -> To tell tall stories (EN)

  • To translate the idea of being particularly meticulous

Chercher la petite bête (FR) -> cercare il pelo nell’uovo (IT) ->To pick a bone (EN)

We can therefore really understand why this type of translation requires an understanding of the target language so thorough that only a native speaker is able to provide it since they have always been in contact with these expressions and shall therefore be more capable of rendering the message.

With regard to the proverbs, often expressions are applied, thought up to convey universal general points : the concept is in use in several countries, but the form, the manner in which this idea is expressed varies from country to country. In fact, each culture views the world differently. For example, while the French saying goes ‘l’avenir appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt le matin’ (the future belongs to those who get up early in the morning), the English uses the image of ‘the early bird catches the worm’. Similarly the expression ‘kick the bucket’ (to die) is translated into French with ‘casser sa pipe’ (break the pipe). It becomes apparent that civilisations have their own way for describing a single concept.

As for idiomatic structures, it’s a question of expressions specific to a language and used on a daily basis. These are also dependent on culture. Anger is particularly present in different expressions whether in Italy or on the other side of the Alps; in fact, in the first case, the emotion is described with the colour black (‘essere nero di rabbia’) whilst in France the colour red is adopted (‘être rouge de colère’).

Another example is worth mentioning to illustrate the fact that idiomatic structures are a result of the culture of a country and its history. The expression ‘filer à l’anglaise’ here refers to impolite behaviours, that of leaving discretely without making yourself known is translated by our English friends as ‘take the French leave’. It therefore seems evident to us that the origin of this expression can be attributed to the franco-british rivalry, each of the two nations assign to the defect in question. Futhermore, for the linguist Gaston Auguste Esnault, the ‘English’ was the name applied to the toilets of the conscripts in Saint-Cyr and was probably the origin of the expression: ‘pisser à l’anglaise’ used to describe being desperate for the toilet.

Despite these constant evolutions of language, certain proverbs or idiomatic expressions are lost over time: the population continues to use expressions containing terms of which the meaning is hidden in the past. This is particularly the case with the French expression ‘tomber dans les pommes’ meaning ‘to faint’. This was first used in the 19th Century; to explain its origin, linguists associate the term ‘pomme’ with ‘pâme’ (‘swoon’) used in the 15th century in the expression ‘tomber en pâmoison’ (‘to pass out’). However, another hypothesis that seems to be more valid can be deduced from the association of the locution ‘tomber dans les pommes’ with the expression ‘être dans les pommes cuites’, (‘to be in the baked apples’) used by Georges Sand to describe a state of fatigue.
For a quality translation, using typical expressions of the language or languages that interest you, don’t hesitate to call upon our native-speaking translators!

Originally posted 2013-08-06 09:22:25.

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