How to Translate Idioms the Right Way?

How to Translate Idioms the Right Way?


7 min read

Learn why idioms are difficult to translate correctly, how to identify them in the text, and figure out their meaning to come up with the best translation in this article.

Translators know very well that idioms aren't a piece of cake to translate. 🧁 Easy-to-translate idioms are a drop in the bucket, and even the most skilled professionals can find it hard to translate the majority of them because of their metaphoric meaning. πŸ§™β€β™‚οΈ

Let alone machine translation engines that will attempt to embarrassingly translate the idioms word-for-word. πŸ“ƒ That happens because there are some culprits to translating idioms literally, including:

  • 😡 Loss of meaning: When an idiom is translated literally, it doesn't convey the intended meaning. It classifies as a bad translation.

  • πŸ’­ Loss of imagery: Idioms are all about conjuring up comparative imagery in your mind. Translating that literally completely messes up the idiom's meaning.

  • πŸ”¨ Loss of usefulness: Translating an idiom literally rips off its intended use and distorts the meaning of the text. The idiom won't be of any use in such a form.

A literal translation of idioms is risky, especially when translating complex texts that are too technical or academic. πŸ‘¨β€πŸ« Why would you want to add more fuel to the fire by throwing a vaguely translated idiom? This said it's about time we learn how to properly translate idioms so that you're always on the ball when asked to translate them. ⛹️

πŸ€” How to Translate Idioms Properly?

Don't fret. Idioms can be challenging but not impossible to tackle. ✊ All you have to do is sit down and follow a step-by-step process that helps you beautifully adapt the idioms into your target language. 🏁 In the end, what's the worst thing they can do to you? They're just words. You can always make it even if you only understand the train station. πŸš‚

Image Source: Giphy

Step 1: Identify the Used Idioms

Scroll or flip through your materials and mark those daunting idioms. How to spot them? 🧐 Their first traits are always remarkable imagery that makes you secretly chuckle before bursting into an "Aha" moment and a witty comparison.

Idioms are common in opinion pieces, fiction, news, and whenever clever writers are hired to write content. Basically, not only fiction writers make use of idioms.

Look at this ad campaign by Scholl and how they've used the idiom: "You pay through the nose," which means paying an unfairly high price. πŸ’° At the same time, the idiom can be taken literally as having to endure a bad smell. πŸ‘ƒ

Image Source: Print by Jim Saunders at

Marketing and advertising are fueled by strong imagery, and this idiom has nailed it. The point is that not only can you find idioms in other works besides fiction, but you find some excellent uses that leave you speechless.

But identifying the idioms in a text remains challenging. Without knowing the specific meaning of the idiom you run into, it will be hard to classify it as an idiom. πŸ€” However, idioms have their own characterizing elements to help you spot them.

At first, they resemble metaphors unrelated to the text's topic. πŸ€“ When your knowledge of the source language tells you that the sentence you ran into doesn't make much sense literally, chances are that you've stumbled into an idiom.

For example, when you read in Wall Street Journal that "YouTube Stars Keep Facebook at Arm's Length For Now," that doesn't mean that they are keeping Facebook physically at arm's length but rather that they are distancing from its use. πŸ˜‰

Image Source: InVision App

Or, when the empty box of unread messages on Slack displays a message that says to you, "the world is your oyster," πŸ¦ͺ it doesn't mean that the world magically transformed into an oyster. What it actually means is that there are no limits to what you can do with your potential. πŸš€

Step 2: Figure Out the Meaning of the Idiom in Your Context

Defining the idiom means that half of the translation task is already made. The beast is almost defeated! Now, we have to wrap our heads around it for an accurate translation. Considering idioms are tough nuts to crack, don't get discouraged if you're confused.

To understand the idiom's meaning, you can search online or ask a native speaker. There are a ton of resources on this matter, such as The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, The Free Dictionary by Farlex, the Cambridge Dictionary, or simply Google. πŸ˜ƒ Here, we are talking about English idioms because, for idioms in other languages, you might need to search for other official or unofficial sources and dictionaries. πŸ“š

At Localazy, we're inviting contributors from all over the world to help us build a repository of idioms translated into multiple languages. Here, you'll find not only translations for idioms but their adoption into your native language.

Step 3: Translate the Idiom as Accurately as Possible

Now go through these three steps to find your idiom's fairest and most accurate translation. Each stage aims to obtain the best translation possible in terms of structure, word choice, imagery, and meaning. ✨ But often, we can't have them all in the target language, so we'll have to compromise on some features we mentioned. πŸ‘¨β€πŸ«

Here are three approaches to idiom translations from the hardest to the easiest:

Find an Equivalent Idiom With the Same Words and Meaning

This is the ideal solution. ✨ For some idioms, you might be able to find the ideal idiom that suits your translation, and this includes a phrase that matches in structure and often in the imagery that it conjures up. πŸ‘»

Even though the probability for an idiom to be found in another language with the same words and structure is very low, they're not inexistent. πŸ‘‰ For example, the idiom "that's a child's game" in English has a similar counterpart in French: c'est un jeu d'enfant. ⛹️

Find an Equivalent Idiom With the Same Meaning

There's still hope when the first approach seems impossible, and there is no equivalent idiom with the same words and structure. The second most ideal approach for translating idioms is to find an adequate idiom in the target language that has the same meaning as your idiom in the source language but uses different words. πŸ“œ

This approach gives you more options since you're not restricted to the word choice but only the structure. You'd be surprised at the similarity of idioms you'll find across languages around the world. Plenty of similar idioms differ from each other only in a single word used, making translation increasingly easy. πŸ˜ƒ

We all know the common idiom: it's raining cats and dogs. 🐱🐢 Well, in Norway, they have a pretty similar idiom: it's raining witches (det regner trollkjerringer). 🧹 In Germany, they say: it's raining shoemakers (Es regnet Schusterjungen), which is equally flabbergasting! πŸ‘ž

Simply Convey the Meaning

The truth is that, practically, you'll struggle to find matching counterparts for your idioms. Not all of them will have twins in other languages. πŸ‘¬ To the point where it becomes impossible to find an equivalent, you have to give up the ghost of that approach and merely attempt to describe the meaning of it thoroughly and clearly. βšͺ

As long as you can accomplish this, your job as a translator is done, even if you don't replace an idiom with an idiom. πŸ”„ In the end, clarity is our main goal when translating and localizing content. Loyalty to literal translation shouldn't come at the expense of qualitative and crisp content. πŸ’»

βœ”οΈ Final Thoughts

Here, we have to tie up the article, hoping to have inspired you in your journey as a translator. Translating idioms is challenging and sometimes a nerve-wracking experience but also a necessary battle to win.

Idioms enrich content and speak to the reader in its vernacular version of the native language. But if you share a different love for idioms, consider joining our open-source project to localize all the world's idioms. πŸ—ΊοΈ