Translating verbal expressions is no picnic. Verbal expressions may include fixed expressions, proverbs, colloquialisms/idioms and jokes/comedy.

We will study how to translate these verbal expressions, by using examples in English and Spanish. NB: Do not worry about understanding Spanish; we will solely focus on the concept of translating verbal expressions. The Spanish use is only incidental to our explanations.

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Fixed Expressions

Fixed expressions are a standardized form of expression which has a meaning ‘beyond the words’. Some examples of fixed expressions are:

  • Fall in line
  • Pop the question
  • Come into mind
  • Wear and tear
  • Take the heat
  • Rule of thumb

Take the fixed expression “fall in line” and imagine we used it in a sentence, such as:

“Once the new management takes over, the employees will quickly fall in line.”

This means that once a new management structure is in place, employees (presumably rambunctious employees) will obey the rules and conform to the work environment.

Imagine that we needed to translate this expression into Spanish. A literal translation would go something like this:

“Una vez que la nueva administración tome el control, los empleados caerán en línea.”

The translation is completely literal and so the meaning of “falling in line” as ‘obedience’ is lost. Rather, we have a literal rendition of “falling in line” which goes to say that employees will literally ‘fall into a line’ or even ‘make a line’. This translation simply does not make sense and the meaning of the expression is not apparent.

The translation of “caerán en línea” could even be interpreted by some as having a more sinister undertone. Taken literally, it could very well mean that the employees will be physically eliminated!

What to do? Well, we need to forget about literal precision and try to maintain the intent of the expression. We need to be creative and come up with something to replace the original expression:

“Una vez que la nueva administración tome el control, los empleados obedecerán.”

We translated the expression as “Once the new management takes over, the employees will obey.” That is probably the best solution when translating verbal expressions like this one.

translating verbal expressions for language localization

Subtitles often exhibit this problem, providing a literal translation that has lost its meaning. Even platforms such as Netflix, which take greater care with their translations than cable television, must remember that literal precision is sometimes uncalled for. We need to exhibit resourcefulness and creativity when translating verbal expressions and thus crafting more natural translations.


Proverbs are similar to fixed expressions. The difference is that fixed expressions are used as part of sentences, whilst proverbs are often complete sentences in themselves. Some examples of proverbs are:

  • Ignorance is bliss
  • You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar
  • Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know
  • Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones
  • A rolling stone gathers no moss
  • It’s not over until the fat lady sings

Imagine we are translating verbal expressions like “A rolling stone gathers no moss”. A literal, precise translation in Spanish could be:

“Una piedra rodante no acumula musgo.”

This is a literal translation that says what the original proverb says: that a moving stone does not accumulate moss. The problem is that the proverb is arguably trying to say that movement and motion prevent stagnation. A non-literal translation could go something like this:

“Es mejor seguir moviéndose y no estancarse.”

This means, literally: “It is best to keep moving and not stagnate”. Such a translation renders intent and meaning, sure, but perhaps it changes the phrase too much.

As opposed to the earlier example about ‘falling in line’, we should probably keep the literal translation of this proverb. Most readers or viewers (if it were a subtitle) would infer what the proverb talks about, even if they have never heard it before.

Sometimes, proverbs have an equivalent (more or less) in the target language. Consider the proverb: Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know”. We could translate this into Spanish as:

“Mejor el Diablo que conoces que el Diablo que no conoces.”

This translation is a literal version of the proverb. It is adequate. There is another possibility, however. That is to use its equivalent in some Spanish-speaking countries:

“Más vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer.”

This translation literally means “A bad and known one is better than a good one yet to be known”. The proverbs deal with essentially the same meaning, that it is best to be cautious and prudent and to perhaps ‘stay in your lane’.

In this case, providing this equivalent proverb could be better than providing the literal translation. The problem, however, is that it could be tampering with the text too much. We could perhaps just stick with the original proverb’s literal translation, when translating verbal expressions like this one.

Colloquialisms and Idioms

The problems posed by proverbs become more acute when dealing with colloquialisms and idioms. A colloquialism is a linguistic style used for casual communication which may include slang and jargon. Idioms are similar to fixed expressions, though more informal and local.

Tourists and expatriates in Colombia are often surprised by colloquial idioms such as:

“No dar papaya.”

The literal translation of this would be “Do not give papaya”. It makes literally no sense. This colloquialism is an admonition to be prudent and not to take unnecessary risks. Thus, it could be used in a phrase such as:

“Hay muchos ladrones en esta zona de la ciudad. Es mejor no dar papaya.”

The translation is “There are a lot of thieves in this area of the city. It is best not to give papaya.” It still makes no sense at all. Perhaps it is best to avoid literal precision and try to preserve the intent and meaning by trying to make it more natural:

“There are a lot of thieves in this area of the city. It is best to be prudent.”

English has its share of colloquialisms and idioms which can be quite puzzling in translation. What about this one, popularized by Bart Simpson:

“Don’t have a cow.”

Basically this is trying to say something like ‘Don’t overreact’, or ‘Relax’. If we were to translate this literally into Spanish we would have something like:

“No tengas una vaca.”

This could be taken as a warning not to ‘own a cow’. The meaning of the original has been lost completely. Perhaps the better translation in this case is to be found straying from literal precision. A good translation could be as simple as “Relax”:



Translating verbal expressions is difficult in comedy. This is probably why some types of comedy succeed in foreign markets and some types of comedy do not. Slapstick and physical comedy can travel very well, but wordplay is often misunderstood.

‘Seinfeld’ is an interesting example. This television show featured a lot of wordplay and indeed, a language of its own. This creates phenomenal challenges at the moment of translating and/or creating subtitles.

Consider the ‘Cigar Store Indian’ episode (Season 5, Episode 10). There is some challenging comedy here, perhaps even impossible to translate.

The Native American storyline is quite tricky to translate:


Jerry mentions making “reservations” to a restaurant. No problem, we can translate this as “reservas” A Spanish audience will get the reference to Native American reservations.


The joke here is the reference to a ‘scalper’ re-selling tickets and also the veiled reference to Native Americans scalping their enemies in combat.

If we give this a literal translation we would end up with something like ‘despellejador’ or ‘desollador’. This is a literal translation but has nothing to do with re-selling tickets. We could translate it as ‘escalpador’, which is even more literal (though arguably not standard form in the Spanish language). If we just put in ‘revendedores’ we would end up describing ‘re-sellers’, but not Native Americans.

The best idea here is to go literal and translate it as ‘escalpador’ or ‘desollador’. Sure, it is not readily apparent that we are referring to people who re-sell tickets (many Spanish-speaking people do not know that ‘scalpers’ re-sell tickets), but the Native American reference is saved. An audience will still be able to put things together and get the comedy.

“Indian giver”  

Now this is tricky. ‘Indian giver’ means someone who gives something away and then wants it back. This expression is practically untranslatable into Spanish.

We could go literal and translate it as ‘regalador Indio’ which makes no sense.

We could leave out precision and try to write it as ‘alguien que regala algo y luego lo quiere de vuelta’ (‘someone who gives something and then wants it back’). It is quite cumbersome though and the Native American reference is lost.

Perhaps the best solution here is not to translate at all. We could translate everything else but leave “Indian giver” (complete with quotation marks). An audience would get that “Indian giver” appears to be an expression in English which means asking for gifts back and the word “Indian” would still point them towards the Native American comedic angle.

That is probably the best we can do. Sometimes, translating verbal expressions demands doing the least damage, saving the comedy as much as possible:

Jerry: No puedes regalar algo y pedirlo de vuelta. Acaso eres un…

Winona: ¿Un qué?

Jerry. Una persona que…

Winona: Una persona que, qué?

Jerry: Una persona que regala algo, y queda insatisfecha y desearía no haberla regalado a la persona que se la dio y …

Winona: ¿Quieres decir un “Indian giver”?

Jerry: Lo siento, no conozco ese término.

Translating Verbal Expressions: The Gist of It

Translating verbal expressions, as we have seen is risky business. It requires attention to two things in particular: the need for precision and the necessity of being understood.

translating verbal expressions for translators

Precise, with a twist of Naturalness, Please

The best policy when translating verbal expressions is precision. Such precision is, first and foremost, literal precision.

Such a principle, regardless, will at times provide translations that jump the shark with too much literal precision. That is why this precision must be sprinkled with naturalness, that is, with phrases that transmit intent and meaning accurately, but which are not necessarily identical to the original.

The Crux of the Matter: Is this being Understood? 

The most important thing, however, is being understood. This is even more crucial than precision. It is necessary to honor the original work and make sure that the reader or audience following subtitles understands the work. Save the comedy!

Translating Verbal Expressions: A Blueprint

To wrap it all up, this is a basic step-by-procedure when translating verbal expressions, based on these two great principles of precision with a twist of naturalness and the need of being understood:

  1. The first instinct should be to translate precisely and literally.
  2. Does this literal precision transmit the idea of the original expression? If this is the case, the translation is done. If it does not transmit meaning we must keep going.
  3. What is the least amount of change that we can give the phrase to make it transmit meaning? We must do that.
  4. If all else fails, we must consider looking for an equivalent expression in the target language, even if it is different from the original. We may even have to create a new phrase that transmits meaning but strays from literal precision.
  5. If it is a lost cause, the translation may be omitted altogether and the original term may be kept, like in the Seinfeld “Indian giver” example.

Good luck translating verbal expressions!