I hope you all agree that translators don’t have the easiest work. They have to face many difficulties which are related to the decision-making process of translation. One of the biggest challenges constitutes translating idioms. What are they and why is it so? Let’s find out or maybe just recall some information if the term already rings a bell to you.

Idiomatic expressions consist of words which in a particular order convey a completely different meaning than the given words separately. Idioms are culturally specific and that sometimes hinders their translation. Some of them are commonly used while other ones are more sophisticated, but that doesn’t change the fact that they may be also problematic in terms of understanding, and – which might come as a surprise – even native speakers may from time to time get confused.  

We can find numerous idioms which may be translated literally, for example: Don’t judge a book by its cover, in Polish Nie oceniaj książki po okładce and in German Beurteile ein Buch nie nach seinem Umschlag or All that glitters is not gold, Nie wszystko złoto co się świeci, Es ist nicht alles Gold, was glänzt, but there are also the ones whose equivalents in various languages differ from each other. To start with, let’s compare English The devil is not so black as he is painted with Polish Nie taki diabeł straszny, jak go malują. Pretty close, right? But have a look at German Es wird nichts so heiß gegessen, wie es gekocht wird, which literally would mean more or less The food we eat isn’t as hot as it was during cooking. Here’s a different case – while the English and German equivalents are almost the same: A drowning man will clutch at a straw and Der Ertrinkende klammert sich an jeden Strohhalm, out of the blue, in Polish we have Tonący brzytwy się chwyta. As far as the first part is concerned, everything sounds fine, but what’s with the second part? Where does this brzytwa (English straight razor) come from? No idea…

As I mentioned in the introduction, translating idioms may be challenging. Especially if there’s no existing equivalent in the target language, for example: English Don’t bite the hand that feeds you has its Polish version Nie gryź ręki, która Cię karmi but something similar to it doesn’t exist in German. What then? Don’t worry. There is always a way out. The best solution is to paraphrase.


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