Translating idioms is one of the more difficult parts of translation, but sometimes the most fun.
Idioms are highly figurative phrases used to describe something, where the meaning of the phrase is more than the sum of its parts.
At any point last year I could have pretty accurately said that it’s ‘raining cats and dogs’, and those of you in Sydney or, probably, Melbourne could have looked out the window and agreed with me, because that phrase ‘raining cats and dogs’ is idiomatic English for the weather being very, very wet.
Idioms are rarely the same across languages and cultures. If you translate each of the component parts directly without appreciating the whole, you can end up with a speaker of another language wondering why there are pets falling from the sky.
My wife, an English-as-an-additional-language teacher, has a great book of idioms from languages around the world called I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears. The fun in this is translating the words quite directly to get an appreciation of how certain cultural understandings are expressed in Japanese, or Inuit, or Yiddish, etc.
Translating idioms well is an excellent example of the approach we take in Bible translation: decoding the meaning from the source language, then encoding that meaning in the target language.
It’s a meaning-to-meaning transfer. If the form of the words gets changed along the way, that’s fine.
This is often called a dynamic equivalence or a functional equivalence approach, because we’re aiming to have the same function of language in both the source and target texts.
The title of the book I mentioned above is a Russian saying for ‘I’m not pulling your leg’ – which itself is idiomatic English. I’ve never literally pulled someone’s leg to get them off course.
Idioms are all over the place in the Bible too. To say someone is angry in Hebrew you say “his nose got hot”, which is close but not quite the same as our expressions ‘burned with anger’ or ‘built up a real head of steam’.
If you translated each of the words in this Hebrew phrase directly there would be many places in the Exodus story where you’d be wondering what was going on with God’s nose.
Idiomatic language is one really important reason to have mother-tongue translators doing the work translating into their own language. They know how to express clearly and naturally in their language. This is especially so for descriptions that can be delicate. 1 Sam 1:19b–20 (NIV) says this:
“Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the LORD for him.”
In Hebrew, Elkanah “knew Hannah his wife”; in Greek he “went to her”. In Kriol, he “slept” with his wife (Elkana bin silip garram im waif Hena). Describing her falling pregnant (‘falling’ pregnant!) Kriol says that Hannah is “in a family way” (Hena bin jidan femiliwei) – a phrase that’s derived from English but is no longer common in modern Standard Australian English.
But Kriol translators know how to say this in a way that is right for their audience. The Pitjantjatjara translation, in a turn of phrase I’ve been assured by many a mother is a delightful description, says of Hannah’s pregnancy: “And at night those two came together, Hannah and Elkanah, and from that Hannah became tired, and then later on she had a son.”
Mother tongue translators know best how to express idiomatic language – how to encode that meaning of the original text – in natural, acceptable, clear, and accurate language.
Sam Freney is translation consultant with Bible Society Australia. Sam works with heart language translators across Australia with the collective goal to translate the Bible in the most accurate, clear and natural way possible.
Join as we look at all things clarity, accuracy, acceptability, and more in a general series of Bible translation tidbits from around our region.