Check Your Idioms Don’t Get Lost In Translation


Idiom: an expression whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meaning of its individual parts.

A Swedish friend sent me a text in English on Sunday morning, and in it, he mentioned that he had had “a very wet night at the neighbour’s”.

… Errm?

Now if you’re Swedish-speaking you’ll immediately understand that he meant he’d drunk quite a few alcoholic beverages. While I suspected as much, I had to double-check with him as that is not what we say in English and a wet evening could mean something very different. Did he perhaps mean a pool party?

This reminded me of a fair few international meetings I’ve sat in, or emails I’ve received, or texts I’ve edited… where the speaker/writer/author has tried to use an idiom from their home language and directly translated it into English.

Here are a few examples:

From a Belgian/French colleague: Let’s not wear the bear’s skin before we’ve caught it (Eng: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch).

From a Polish/Dutch colleague: We’ll be able to kill two flies with one smack (Eng: Kill two birds with one stone).

From many a Swedish colleague: It fell between the chairs (Eng: It slipped between the cracks).

Of course, most of the time the meaning can be gleaned from the context, and in meetings between international colleagues it’s not usually a show-stopper (there’s another one – it doesn’t cause a big problem). In fact, directly translated idioms can often provide a welcome laugh.

But sometimes, it can be utterly, utterly reputation-ripping. Anyone remember in 2010, when, after the Gulf oil spill, the Chairperson of BP at the time held a press conference outside the White House? The Swede certainly put his foot in it (there’s another one) when he clumsily referred to the people impacted by the oil spill as “the small people”. This was a Swenglishism for which he later had to publicly apologise.

Idioms are a great way to liven up language and illuminate an idea in texts. But please, please get them checked by a native speaker if you’re going to use them in any other language than your own. Or at least preface them with “As we say in my language” when speaking. If you’re using a professional translator, they should be able to:

a) Recognise when they’re dealing with an idiom in the original language.
b) Accurately convey the sense of the idiom in the target language.
c) Best case scenario, find an equivalent idiom if one exists.

Make sure your translator hits the nail on the head.

PS: My friend who shall remain anonymous, speaks fabulous English and gave me his permission to use his example.

PPS: A great English idiom for having had a lot to drink is “had a skinful”.

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