Everybody who’s tried to translate anything has beat their head against the wall sometimes. It’s such an inherent part of the trade that a translator’s degree should come with a football helmet. But what is it about translating phrases that can cause such frustration and potential cerebral injury?
For one, not all languages are built the same. We live in a plural world where not all tongues have the same provenance. While it’s been argued that the ability to communicate using language is innate, not all theorists agree.
Regardless of your point of view, not all languages have the same underlying structure, although there is some commonality.
These different features are one of the many causes that can cause a headache for translators. After all, it’d be great if every phrase, slang word, or colloquialism had a perfect analog in the target language, right? But, as any old translator will tell you, expectations and reality differ.
If you’re going to be hiring a translator, or are thinking about localizing your content, listen up! It’s important to know that you should give even the best translator some creative leeway. Some phrases are just untranslatable or require a more complex degree of finesse to get right.
Why don’t we take a deeper look?
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This post has been updated in October 2021.
Translating phrases is no easy feat
Translation is not just about blindly converting words into another language, as a machine would. In fact, I’ve never seen a more surefire way for disaster than to have an input/output approach towards translating texts. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have written so many articles on avoiding the perils and pitfalls of online translators. The links will be below if you want to take a deeper dive.
A good translation is about taking information in the source language and converting it into the desired (target) language as faithfully as possible. But what is “faithful” in the first place, and who defines it? That’s where we’re bound to get into theoretical arguments.
You see, there are competing schools of thought when it comes to tackling how translation should be handled. This is called the “precision vs. aesthetics dilemma.” Let’s take a look before we get into what that has to do with translating phrases.
Precision vs. Aesthetics
In our article about translation theory, we delve into this problem in more detail. The article uses a renowned test by the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to exemplify the issue. The test’s grading matrix values precision over aesthetics. The examiners define ‘precision as’
(the) equivalence of meaning with the original text. Meaning is the system of coherent concepts with a communicative purpose at the level of words, phrases, text or discourse.
On the other hand, they define ‘aesthetics’ as:
the use of grammatical structures and linguistic variables which are considered a correct usage by speakers and writers in that language. A written text or oral discourse is considered to have a high level of naturalness, if:
- Idiomatic grammatical structures that native speakers employ are used.
- When translating the non-specialized terms a standard variety vocabulary is used.
- When translating the specialized terms the equivalent terms of the specific field of action are used.
The errors of naturalness are the use of national, regional, social, chronological or cultural variations different to the standard.
What is valued more?
I’ll make it short for you, although I recommend perusing the above article if you want the finer details; most translators (and translation certifications) value precision over aesthetics. This is, above all, a position based on the ethics behind a translator’s job. Translators are not supposed to be moral arbiters behind a text’s quality or lack thereof. Therefore, they’re not supposed to see embellishing texts or translations as within their purview.
A translator is supposed to care, above all, for conveying the meaning behind the original text with a focus on equivalence and structure. As long as the text communicates, preserves the intent, and maintains as much of the original rhythm and flow as possible, touch-ups should be minimal.
This is doubly true when dealing with any translation that requires highly technical and specialized language. Legal, medical, and industrial translation easily fall within these categories. While we don’t mean that these types of translations merit a literal approach, they do merit a more precise one. That means that while phrases will not pop, and passages may appear odd, there will be a single-minded focus on preserving the original focus and not omit or alter any important information.
This usually means that when translating phrases in the legal milieu, translators will have to constantly compare legal systems and their social contexts. So, even in these highly precise translation environments, there is a tension between absolute precision and necessary aesthetic and natural concerns.
Not as simple as you would’ve originally thought, huh?
Translating phrases: when fixed doesn’t mean immutable
Of course, this does not mean that aesthetics are second-best when it comes to translating phrases. Quite the contrary, as the place of aesthetics, is, as we have discussed above, in preserving naturalness. This becomes especially relevant when we deal with fixed phrases.
Study.com defines fixed phrases as:
Fixed phrases are phrases in which the wording cannot be changed without sounding odd to native speakers, even if the literal meaning is the same.
Fixed phrases, as a category, also includes idioms, which are fixed phrases that mean something different from their literal definition. Just as with other fixed phrases, you cannot change the wording of idioms, even if the literal meaning would stay the same. Both idioms and other fixed phrases may be tested on standardized tests.
Have you ever used the phrase ‘agree to disagree,’ or, ‘it cost an arm and a leg’ before? You probably have (NB: although I won’t fault you for not using the second one too much, maybe you’re not as chronologically challenged as I am).
How do these phrases fare when we attempt to translate them in a text? What do we do?
Navigating rocky roads
Actually, that IS a fixed expression too! More on that later. So, let’s do a simple English/Spanish literal translation to elucidate this matter.
‘Let’s agree to disagree’
This phrase seems so simple that it’s self-evident, right? Only, it doesn’t have a Spanish analog by a longshot! First, allow me to attempt a literal translation:
‘Estemos de acuerdo en estar en desacuerdo.’
Is any of the above grammatically, logically, or syntactically incorrect? Not in the slightest! Does it sound like it would’ve been uttered by any native of many Spanish dialects out there? I don’t think so. While it’s true that literal translations may sometimes — as a manner of lateral thinking — introduce new phrases and colloquialisms into a language, that’s not what a translator should set out to do. Paradoxically, preserving precision may also mean maintaining a certain level of naturalness and fluency.
On translation forums, I’ve seen aesthetic interpretations as diverse as:
- ‘Aceptemos estar en desacuerdo.’;
- ‘Dejemos de lado nuestras diferencias.’;
- ‘Aceptemos el desacuerdo.’;
Permutations add up, and it’s a safe bet to say that the search for the ‘perfect’ translation will continue!
Another example of translating phrases with fixed meanings
Let’s try another phrase on for size (which, again, is another idiomatic, fixed expression).
‘That coffee cost me an arm and a leg.’
Easy enough. A literal translation in Spanish would read as follows:
‘Ese café me costó un brazo y una pierna.’
Done. On to the next, right? Maybe we can move on and translate the other 325 pages of that nov— wait a minute! That phrase would read very strangely in Spanish. It would take readers right out of the book and make them wonder just why that person had to become an amputee for coffee. I love a dark roast as much as anyone, but golly, maybe you have an addiction!
Sometimes, that’s one of the perils of translating literally. While the phrase makes perfect sense, it doesn’t read naturally for people who don’t experience it as a common, everyday thing to say. The main point of fixed phrases is that they’re automatic, not requiring any special in-depth interpretation. But using them in other languages just highlights their foreignness and strangeness.
I wonder, do we have any analogs across all the variations of Spanish that we could use in this case? Yes, and it’s such an old Castillian phrase that it’s used from Ushuaia to Guadalajara!
‘Ese café me salió un ojo de la cara.’
In English, that would roughly read:
‘That coffee cost me an eye from my face.’
See how the problem easily reverses? Furthermore, I’m not even getting into exchanging ‘cost’ for ‘salió’, which would probably ‘cost’ me a few more paragraphs of overexplaining. Translating phrases, man. It ain’t easy.
As you can see, translating phrases is probably one of the most head-bangingly difficult tasks in all translation. Sure, I wouldn’t want to spend my days knee-deep in legal translations. But, when we’re translating novels, books, movies, or anything that deals in colloquial, everyday expressions, it gets real. And yes, that’s another fixed expression that has absolutely no meaning outside English.
Translating phrases is not just about the many challenges of the trade. It also makes us think about the many expressions we take for granted every day, but have no bearing outside our culture or community. It highlights the plurality of language, as well as our attempts to find commonality through translation efforts.
If you’ve got any content that would benefit from careful treatment, I would advise that you put it in capable hands. After all, I’ve seen more botched translation jobs when it comes to translating phrases than there are bad surgery jobs walking down Sunset Blvd.
Let’s just say that there’s a reason pros are pros, and some people are charging $5 per 10,000 words on Fiverr.
And hey, I swear our rates won’t cost you an arm and a leg!
Find the right translator today at Bunny Studio!