Translating idiomatic expressions, a cruel task…

From the very earliest days of translation, there have been many who have looked into what to translate and, most importantly, how to translate. Literal (or verbatim) translation to retain the essence of the source text or translation by meaning to create a more natural target text.

This is a story that has never been fully understood, even to the present day, and each person is pulling the wool over their own eyes with the two practices still very much present in the heads of our professionals. One form of translation is safer because it has the support of the training wheels of the source text, while the other ventures away on just two wheels and is consequently more prone to accidents. However, don’t forget to wear a helmet!

There is no doubt that everything can be translated. After all, that’s what we’re here for. But again and again the romantic notion arises that there are expressions, or words, that cannot be localised or that should not be localised, because to do so results in them losing their meaning. This is a theme that was taken up on social media recently, with Portugal’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2022 with the song “Saudade” by MARO. This song has caused many people to embrace looking lost on seas never before sailed, saying that saudade is very much a Portuguese thing and that there no translation or expression in another language accurately reflects the sense that the word conveys to Portuguese speakers. And this is true… but also untrue.

Saudade can and is often translated into other languages, and that is because everyone feels longing, but there is no doubt our saudade here in Portugal comes from within and is strongly rooted in our cultural expression. And this is where the difficulty in translating these more singular – or idiomatic – expressions arises. In her book Other Words, Dr Mona Baker tells us these expressions are frozen patterns of a language with little or no opportunity for variation and which often have meanings that cannot be extracted from any of its individual parts. Idioms are closely linked to the culture of the country and learning them can be both fun and frustrating.

In what other country can we say that something was Resvés Campo de Ourique? Unless there are several Campos de Ourique that miraculously escaped destruction in an earthquake in 1755 that we are unaware of. But we could translate this as “close shave”. It might not have the same power or prose, but the meaning is there. There is also “close, but no cigar”, although this alters the meaning slightly.
And everyone has heard these two classics: Trigo limpo, farinha Amparo for something that is very easy, or sair a carta na farinha Amparo meaning someone who is having problems driving or who is just a bad driver.The same farinha (flour) has been present in our culture for many years, albeit with very different meanings. So how do we localise this? Well, for the former could we use “a piece of cake”, which even manages a relationship with the theme, although it is still missing something…? And could the latter be “getting your driving licence in a lucky bag”? This latter one is humorous because you never know what is inside a lucky bag, which means a bad driver could have found a driving licence inside. As for this one, we wouldn’t have much trouble translating, but it would take some cultural gymnastics to get there.

And then we have another issue: that of machine translation. We have already covered this topic in another article in which we note the computer can translate a text easily by exchanging words in one language for words in another, although without adapting the text to reflect the cultural or emotional notions that enrich a translation if it is to be adapted properly to the target context.
The computer is able to translate Primeiro estranha-se, depois entranha-se almost perfectly, but it will be unaware of the context of this slogan, which was created by Fernando Pessoa for a Coca Cola advertisement in Portugal that was censored by the Estado Novo. Would you like to see the translation? Well, it depends, but the computer’s choice “At first it’s strange, then it’s understandable” is quite poor…

We are not looking for problems. But solutions. So, how do we deal with this and come out on top? One way is to use similar expressions with the same meaning in both languages; another would be to use expressions with the same meaning but which are written differently; to paraphrase and just convey the meaning without using expressions; or, as a last resort, to omit.
There is no “one size fits all” – no single solution that works for all projects, so it is up to the professional to choose the best solution at the time, taking into account other factors such as the theme and the target audience. We are sure that omitting or domesticating Terry Pratchett’s expressions and puns in Discworld would impoverish the source text, but decorating translations of texts by Haruki Murakami or Khaled Hosseini with translator’s notes explaining certain expressions or situations is a richness that opens the reader to other cultures. As they say: “it’s no picnic”.

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